Good and Bad Writing


Here are a few examples of good writing.

We were taken to a fast-food café where our order was fed into a computer. Our hamburger, made from the flesh of chemically impregnated cattle, had been broiled over counterfeit charcoal, placed between slices of artificially flavored cardboard and served to us by recycled juvenile delinquents.  Jean Michel Chapereau


The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars. Gustave Flaubert.


Somewhere there was once a Flower, a Stone, a Crystal, a Queen, a King, a Palace, a Lover and his Beloved, and this was long ago, on an Island somewhere in the ocean 5,000 years ago … Such is Love, the Mystic Flower of the Soul. This is the Center, the Self.  Carl Jung


I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than it be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.  Jack London


Has this ever happened to you? Summer vacation has started, you’ve just settled in to your cabin on the lake, when suddenly you remember: You have a contract to write an introduction to SLA, and the manuscript is due next week. What do you do?

Well, if you decide not to go back to the office and actually work, you might try to write down as many of the standard topics as come to mind—learning versus acquisition, performance versus competence, morpheme acquisition, processability, critical period, UG, connectionism, and so forth—and scribble a few anodyne lines about each, without actually providing any details about any. If you did that, you might wind up with something not too different from Saville-Troike’s truly embarrassing new book. Kevin Gregg


I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet,

And the river jumps over the mountain

And the salmon sing in the street.


I’ll love you till the ocean

Is folded and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking

Like geese about the sky.  W. H. Auden


Why are they good? Because they’re rhythmic. They all set up a rhythm, they flow, they lead you on. That’s the first and most important criterion of good writing: it leads you on by getting you in the groove. But it leads you on in different ways, though: rhythm in writing is created by the stress patterns of the words in a sentence, and sentences are hugely variable. It’s almost impossible, in my opinion, to lay out the declarative knowledge required to write rhythmically, and here we are again with the declarative versus procedural knowledge conundrum. Is writing a skill? Yes it is. Is it best taught by explaining the rules? No, it isn’t, at least it isn’t if we want to go beyond the rules of a particular genre like academic writing, where the current conventions of citing sources and not using contractions are easily explained. The trick is to concentrate on actually producing texts. Write a few paragraphs. Read them out loud. How do they sound? Not good? Why not?  Sentence one too hurried? Sentence two too long? You could say, for example, that different rhythms can be got by using long sentences (fluid, easy, smooth) or short sentences (crisp, snappy, up-beat), but it never really gets to the heart of the matter, does it? Because you have to feel it, and, like Auden’s love poem, you know when you’ve got it right. Actually, that’s an interesting example because Auden tried on so many hats you never knew what he “really” felt, least of all if you were unlucky enough to be one of his lovers. I’m losing you – the rhythm’s gone!

There’s this mixture of trusting your instinct and being aware of what you’re doing: you have to trust your feel for the rhythm of what you write,  but you also have to check time and time again that you’ve got the right effect. Bach swings seemingly without effort, but we know he sweated buckets to keep that rhythmic flow and keep it fresh. Charlie Parker was the master: he could keep the rhythm going no matter what. He could let the band go, catch it up and grab the rhythm by the scruff of its neck when you felt it was far too late, and Sinatra could do the same. Both Parker and Sinatra had rhythm in their bones; their genius was the way they bent it. I’ve lost the rhythm again. The point is that they felt and understood rhythm; they knew about it, they used it knowingly.

In writing, Dickens was a master of rhythm (the first page of Bleak House, for example), and so, in my opinion, was Kingsley Amis, who wrote splendid essays about writing, as has his son more recently (see Martin Amis’ The War Against Clichés). In non-fiction, examples of great rhythmic prose are George Orwell’s essays, Alan Bennett ‘s diaries, and the journalistic pieces of Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal and Clive James.  All these great writers had a natural “don” for swing, for rhythm, but they all combined it with enormous amounts of work honing their craft.

Attention to rhythm goes hand in hand with attention to fresh and lively prose. You need to do exactly the opposite of what those who peddle the “Lexical Approach” advise their students to do, namely to step off the well-trodden path and stop using worn out language. Take a look again at the examples above: all of them swing, and all of them sing too – they use inventive, lively language – none of them uses clichés without thinking twice (geddit). The rhythm of good writing swings and its fresh use of words sings. Even when you write a 3,000 word assignment for an MA  module on pronunciation, you can make it swing and sing. You can combine coherence and cohesion with grace and delight, and if you don’t believe me, read any article published by Kevin Gregg (who, just by the way, manages, through unusual scholarship and critical acumen, to do more than most to advance our understanding of SLA) .

As so often in literary appreciation, it’s easier to give a list of “Don’ts” than “Dos”. George Orwell’s great essay “Politics and the English Language” is often cited for its list of “Don’ts”, but the famous six rules strike me as very thin soup. I think Charlie Parker has the best advice:

“When in doubt, leave it out!”

Parker was of course advising against the temptation to gild the lily, but no doubt those who disapprove of my latest post on Harmer wish that I hadn’t bothered to start.

5 thoughts on “Good and Bad Writing

  1. If you are going to sneak in quotes from your favourite applied linguists, under the guise of literature, then let me do the same:

    “Cognition, consciousness, experience, embodiment, brain, self, and human interaction, society, culture, and history are all inextricably intertwined in rich, complex, and dynamic ways. Despite this complexity and despite this lack of overt government, instead of anarchy and chaos, patterning pervades the complex system of language. The patterns are not preordained by God, by genes, by school curriculum, or by other human policy, but instead they are emergent from the interactions of the agents involved.”

    Ellis, N. 2011. The emergence of language as a complex adaptive system. In Simpson, J.(Ed) The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics.


    1. All contributions gratefully received of course, but this doesn’t sound much better than Larsen-Freeman to me. I prefer:

      “Syllabus. Texts. Activities. Is there anything else a coursebook offers? Comfort. Complacency. Conformity. Professional atrophy. Institutional malaise. Student boredom. Slow death by mcnuggets.”

      Full text available here in a comment on Steve Brown’s blog: Can’t for the life of me remember who said it. 🙂


    2. The agents in question must have some intrinsic characteristics if they are able to enter into interactions with each other. The ‘patterns’ must be determined, at least in part, by those characteristics, in that the patterns would have been different had the characteristics been different.


  2. But don’t EFL students need to get a grasp of cliché in ordet to have a command over it? This question kinda goes to the heart of questions over Global English, and it also suggests we should be approaching vocab for writing and speaking in completely different ways.


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