Is Writing a Single Bad Sentence a Signal of Bad Writing?

A response to HL Gibson‘s post The Standards of Prose – Realistic or Ridiculous? and to the linked resource within on the debate about writing quality.

Although I want to read more of the post Sentence Anxiety before coming to a definitive conclusion, my instinct as an experienced writer, academic-oriented reader, English teacher, and writing tutor says this: It’s all relative, and to a greater extent than elitists would have us accept; even this grammarian recognizes the primacy of substance over style. (And, anyway, if the work has been published, blame the editor, not the writer, for truly bad remaining sentences.) Five points elaborate on my position.

  1. Perfectionism, again? Nobody’s perfect, and perfect should not be the goal.
  2. The reader’s choices. No one thing defines a good product for everyone, whether it’s a good pen or a good book.
  3. It depends, part 1. Genre can greatly impact the relative importance of writing good sentences, good descriptions, good dialogue, or good plots.
  4. It depends, part 2. Every writer has different goals, purposes, inspirations, and needs in the writing life.
  5. Balance, grasshopper. The sentence comes first but should also come last.

Perfectionism, again?

Nobody’s perfect, and perfect should not be the goal. Human and relatable should take precedence as traits of good writing.

Even the so-called expert or esteemed writers in literary history have written–and published–bad sentences on occasion. Some of them wrote or still write quite often what many readers consider bad sentences. Style is a relative thing, and a reader’s response to a particular style dictates, or at least colors, his or her assessment of the writing’s inherent quality. The defining issue is whether the overall result suffers, is unaffected, or profits by the occasional, or even well-placed, bad sentence.

Is the true standard of value in writers such as Joyce and Hemingway based upon the merits of their writing styles, or could it be more about the fact of their innovation in style itself? Does presence of innovation alone determine level of quality? Being avant garde as an artist can sometimes trump skills in sentence structure, grammar, or other aspects of style. In such a case, if such a case can be proven, it’s the novelty that blinds us to stylistic flaws or debatable quality of content. Then, there’s the legitimacy of debate itself to consider . . . .

The reader’s choices. 

No one thing defines a good product for everyone, whether it’s a good pen or a good book. Some people prefer ballpoint over gel pens, and some people prefer Bic’s ballpoint to Pentel’s. Etc. They’re all right.

Yes, there is a difference between quality of storytelling and quality of premise, quality of grammar and quality of paragraphing. However, bad sentences can serve a literary purpose just as, though less frequently, bad storytelling can make a larger meta-literary point, not to mention exist regardless of writing quality. If there is character-driven, storytelling, or contextual purpose to a bad sentence, then it must stay. Intent matters, true. But all parts must be taken together when judging a literary work.

But when it comes down to tough choices, would you rather have a good story with flaws in the telling or a bad story with immaculate prose? (Hey, to each his own.)

It depends, part 1. Genre.

Genre can greatly impact the relative importance of writing good sentences, good descriptions, good dialogue, or good plots. Again, the reader determines the value of the written material. The author just has to decide which readers he or she is going to pay attention to and which ones to ignore. That goes for weighing the literary elitists against the masses, as well as the sci-fi crowd against the literary fiction readership. Whatever game you’re in, those are the rules you must play by if you want to succeed in your goals, and such success as a writer may not be the same thing as gaining great acclaim, fame, or royalties. On that point . . .

It depends, part 2. Writer goals.

Every writer has different goals, purposes, inspirations, and needs in the writing life. The trick is finding the support system, outlets, professionals, resources, and guiding principles that will provide the best framework for a writer to be as  authentic as possible to herself and her craft. If fixating over every grammatical error or boring language stifles your creativity or ends up ruining the rhythm of your prose or storytelling, what purpose could such meticulous attention possibly serve you as a writer, and by extension, any potential readers of your work?

Balance, grasshopper.

The sentence comes first but should also come last.

When we make it all about the well-written sentence, we hide behind the fallacy that there is some sort of literary merit in suffering for suffering’s sake, about being an artistic martyr or hard-luck case, a victim of the inhospitable reading world, a masochist. We may do this in order to wear the badge of honor for having struggled, toiled, revised, revised, and revised to create a gem of prose, and, through those efforts, somehow earned the right to be read. It doesn’t work that way.

Writing quality alone, just like good storytelling alone, rarely provides the pay-off. Good work demands a balanced approach, attending to all facets in turn.

In my own tendency to bow down to language for its sound at the expense of cropped-dscn88801.jpgits sense, I have come to believe that most of the time, with fiction anyway, I just don’t have enough good ideas to share, a good story to tell, to spend the time. What good is writing well in the world of novels and short stories if you have nothing compelling enough about which to write or no viable story-plot framework? And yet, to be fair with myself, I know I am outgrowing that tendency. Awareness first.

Before the writer of a novel reaches the stage in which sentence haggling occurs, there must be much work visiting and revisiting the piece to ensure that the ideas, the story, the plot, the characters, and all the other elements of the premise and concept of the book are sound and enticing.

Ultimately, though, whether it’s about a sentence or a plot, writers must approach self-critique through the eyes of their intended audience, the readers they aim to entertain. That can mean throwing out one’s great sentences or paragraphs or chapters and killing or deleting one’s beloved characters for the greater good of pleasing oneself and others as readers of the book as a whole.


After revisiting Sentence Anxiety, I am confident in my instincts. (Gee, that’s novel.) The author of that post, The Incompetent Writer, is far from incompetent and says it more succinctly and precisely than I have here, while also providing further eye-opening points.

We two agree on many of them both in the first half and toward the end of Sentence Anxiety, such as how it’s important to look at the issue from the reader’s rather than solely the writer’s perspective, and how sentence fixation may not be particularly healthy. What happens in between is a deeper, more incisive examination of the nature of the sentence than my rather impulsive post approaches, especially regarding the value of fluctuating sentence quality within a piece. I found myself nodding throughout.

On the other hand, another point I should have made, which The Incompetent Writer does, is that I, too, greatly value impressive prose in my own reading.

Do check it out: In Sentence Anxiety, The Incompetent Writer refers to specific other voices in the debate as well, which I may pursue myself. And thank you, HL Gibson, for your post The Standards of Prose – Realistic or Ridiculous?. You brought me to the debate and inspired this commentary.

2 thoughts on “Is Writing a Single Bad Sentence a Signal of Bad Writing?

  1. Pingback: On Treating Writing as a Form of Play | Philosofishal

  2. Pingback: Five-Phrase Friday (18) | Philosofishal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s