How to Write Badly (and be successful)

Would you like to be a hack journalist, a writer of second-rate fiction or an impenetrable and ultimately meaningless postmodern philosopher? Sometimes it seems impossible — it even seems, from time to time, as if quality is rewarded and all you need to secure a nice publishing deal and a comfy career as a broadsheet columnist is to write well. All nonsense of course. Here’s how it’s done…

Firstly, knowledge of the structure of a paragraph, that pre-empts and responds to your reader’s understanding, must be largely guesswork. Laws, such as having clear, connecting topic strings, sentence structure leading from old information to new, subjects that are not ten clause-miles from their verbs and well-balanced flowing phrases, that govern clear elegant prose, will then not be something you feel have to learn or become sensitive to, believing instead that an ability to speak equals an ability to write which will in itself make your reader do a lot of work piecing together your nightmare convolutions… like this one!

You should also have a warped idea of quality and talent. A university literature course is excellent training in separating you from any meaningful contact with society (particularly with ordinary people) and in the denial of quality; which is taboo and never seriously investigated in education. University art courses systematically deprive students of the critical faculties required to understand or appreciate the technique of genius (you will, for example, never find ‘How to Write a Clear Essay’ or ‘How to Paint a Beautiful Picture’ in a university prospectus), while, at the same time, ‘higher’ education instils in students the belief that genius is some kind of ‘gift’. Genius — says the syllabus, the teacher and the newspaper — is not obtained through long practice and self-mastery, it is not fundamentally available to everyone, no, it’s only for special people; so give up striving, dedicating and devoting yourself to mastery of your craft.

Having no understanding of language (being monolingual is a bonus) and no interest in craft is essential, then, if you just want to write badly. However, writing badly and being successful is something slightly different. For this you do need to learn to put sentences together, acquire a few long words, read fairly widely and pick up a little grammar; but these are just technical matters. The essential element of writing badly and being successful is writing technically well while saying nothing.

Most luminaries of the middle-class literary or journalistic scene did and do very well on ‘well-written’, eloquent, vibrant prose that is utterly without content. Some even boast of it. But if you have no point, no genius, no deep truth smouldering in your guts, you will have to disguise your fundamental superficiality by adding, according to taste, an excess of the following elements:-

  • Sloppy, sleazy, oozy, fat, dribbly, visceral adjectives in their straining, creaking, chunky cartloads.
  • Shitloads of motherfucking swearwords or teasing clouds of soft round pink self-lubricating young sex-fleshery.
  • Irrelevant asides, such as the fact that my fingers are now slightly oily, or preferences, such as my love of the rice crackers that made them that way.
  • Titillating references to shared knowledge, such as sequels full of smug in-group allusions to part one, or polemics that, like an Olympic opening ceremony, replace meaning with emotionally potent [religious or nationalistic] oversimplifications. Kitch, retro and the no longer sold sweeties sucked by your target age group when they were kiddies will also elicit cheap quality-disguising thrills.
  • Metaphors that link events with abstract adverts for depth (e.g. ‘he touched her like a dream’ or ‘their eyes flamed bright with sacrifice’ or ‘blood oozed from his head like a secret’).
  • Out of date language that evokes the emotion of nostalgia. If you are a fan of Lord of the Rings, for example, you might like to smite asunder the hoary shackles of shadow play. If nineteenth century romance is your game, why not contrive to bewitch your reader with the éclat of meretricious rapture?
  • Random rather than revealing absurdities, such as women with three breasts, fourteen blue clowns, any in-vogue absurd symbol (such as cheese, fish and ninja) or indeed any symbol (aka ‘motif’) at all, provided you repeat it enough.
  • Reportage: the minutiae of your life or of your character’s. This one is a favourite of Eastern European or Iranian screenwriters.
  • Interrogations of the hypnogogic anamnesis of subjects so alienated they can never be sure if your recondite professional art jargon is, in fact, bullshit.

More important than all this, however, is to never, ever show your audience artistic truth or let that truth speak for itself; you must tell people what to think and feel. If you are writing a story, don’t make it bright with recognition of subtle psychological vibe-truth, don’t help us to understand characters in a new way and allow us to naturally care for them, don’t masterfully arrange events so that the external world mirrors the internal world, forcing characters to confront and overcome themselves in archetypically satisfying sacrifice, don’t sprinkle your stories with the bizarre brilliance of what can actually happen or the elusive, mystery of actually existing vibe. No. Judge your characters and then manipulate them into situations which are supposed to be deep, touching, exciting or funny; holding up, in effect, mood signs saying ‘cry’ or ‘laugh’.

Telling, rather than showing, is based on wilful ignorance of a reality we can genuinely share; that which actually exists. Tolstoy’s dictum that to express the things of the imagination is hard, but to express real life is harder still, should be dismissed out of hand. You should have no real interest in what your senses reveal to you of the world, no capacity to lay wide your soft-conscious attention in order to absorb the strange quality of the moment, the hidden subtleties of life or the strange understory being played out in the world as it is. All this is always out of fashion for the mediocre-but-successful writer, who must instead focus on imagination (whatever she can think up) and reportage (the isolated, ideally media-filtered facts of experience). This will ensure that what you write has an air of, on the one hand, magic, wonder, creativity or, on the other, hard-hitting truth-telling factual accuracy while, actually, being derivative, dull, fundamentally misleading and, if fiction, full of characters who all speak like you.

Perhaps you have noticed this in literary art? A strange tendency for superheroes of the future, animated sausages, five year-old children, ancient tribespeople and alien mind-clouds to all speak like comfortable middle-class graduates working in the entertainment industry? Perhaps you have heard the mono-voice which speaks in the bestsellers and literary prize-winners — the same voice you hear on the radio, at the office, in the newspapers…?

Talking of newspapers, if you are writing non-fiction you should tell the reader what to think, what to believe and what to hope for. Either make the subject of your headlines what must happen, should happen, could happen and will happen; or just judge something. ‘The left needs new ideas…’ for example, or ‘Wellness promises change without affecting anyone; that’s fantasy’ or ‘Syrian children are starving, we must help them, now’. Facts are of some importance here, but not very much. The key is that you believe that your ‘perspective’ matters. As a modern writer of non-fiction what you have to say is not as important as the mere fact you believe in it; for this reason you must worship relativism; the doctrine that the particular experience of the individual is the final arbiter of experience (also known as beauty being in the eye of the beholder). This postmodern emphasis on ‘perspective’ (also a lynchpin of the modern humanities) can be used to defend yourself against all criticism (‘oh well, that’s just your opinion’) and will help to disguise your lack of real experience or love of life, your lack of courage or exposure to uncertainty and your lack of magic empathy for the condition of things in existence.

Another key component of dreadful non-fiction is newspeak. This is not the same as news speak (using words like ‘defence’, ‘peace’, ‘progress’, ‘democracy’ and so on to ally yourself to the system or the [state / corporate] establishment and to conceal its crimes), rather the subtler, unspoken assumption that certain terms can only be understood by trained academics. You must adhere to the belief that the true meaning of words like ‘energy’, ‘consciousness’, ‘beauty’, ‘love’, ‘paradox’, ‘matter’, ‘time’ and so on is one that only a few, highly specialised thinkers can grasp. In this way you can suck the communicative power of language utterly dry while filling people’s heads up with second hand reports of what experts say. Marvellous.

Oh, and don’t forget to get offended by a whole lot of nasty, nasty words. Apart from the crimes of official enemies, there should be nothing worse in the entire universe than ‘abuse’. The grinding misery of the world, the permanently alienated frustration of the modern worker, the earth that is actually dying, a crippled world unable to use its feet — oh yes, quite awful. But he said WHAT? a RACIST word? AND a wolf-whistle? Turn the outrage dial up to ten thousand IMMEDIATELY! (and then swoon). This will make you seem passionate, moral and edgy — and boost your status — without actually changing anything; just what the corporate editor loves.

Of course you can’t get offended if you’re not devoted to the PC world. ‘Is eating a banana a feminist issue?’ ‘How should people of colour react to black foods, such as Marmite?’ ‘Was Shakespeare Transgender?’ and so on, and so forth. There are important things to be said about race and gender, but the point, for you, as an aspiring bad writer is that whole-self allegiance to feminism, gay rights, anti-racism and so on gives you a personality, ideology, message and crusading style, ready-made for the recent graduate to step into and start a column in the The New Statesman.

I mention The New Statesman because it is it is one of the shining examples of fatuous bullshit masquerading as fact and analysis. It once was, however, a publication that had some integrity, thanks to the great Peter Wilby, who had this to say about journalists:

No skills or talent? Come and join us. I have often expressed the view that journalism needs a social class category all to itself. It is not a profession (no esoteric knowledge) nor a skill (many hacks, including me, don’t have shorthand) nor a working-class occupation (no manual labour). I would call it unskilled middle class. Now I discover that Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone’s star reporter, agrees, though he puts it more graphically than I’ve ever done. ‘If you have no real knowledge or skill set,’ he says in an interview, ‘and you’re lazy and full of shit but you want to make a decent wage, then journalism’s not a bad career option… I can’t believe people actually go to journalism school. You can learn the entire thing in, like, three days.’ Or, judging from the state of some newspapers, less.

The venality and corruption of journalism are well known. The complete lack of skill, culture, originality or intelligence in the profession tends to be a little harder to spot because, like all writers with nothing to say, the one thing they learn is how to hide their extraordinary mediocrity — behind titillation, ‘strong opinions,’ outrage, and the like. In this they resemble the high priests of the meaningless, modern artists, which modern journalists always get tremendously excited about.

IT’S SO EASY!

As with any other brainwashing (such as parenting or teaching), there is no need to learn to cover your lack of originality or real point, or to practice the tricks we’ve looked at. It will come naturally, of itself, just as long as you do one thing; at all costs you must avoid experiencing the subtle, paradoxical and mysterious moment, fully, without crutch, prop or funnel. You must fall out of touch with the immanent (non-technical) innocence and genius of life. This will ensure you do not feel the rending impulse to tear yourself open to it further, which will in turn ensure that you will feel no burning need to express or share it, which will, finally, ensure that no great craft or honesty is required to write it down; for it is easy to make second-rate art with a crude, binary, blatant self in charge (explained here). If you do not know what words and images really mean, it is easy to corrupt them and fun to paint the prison walls with them.

There are of course many other technical tricks you can ignore to further degrade your lacklustre skills (the advice of Joseph M. Williams, Robert McKee, [early] David Mamet, John Gardner and George Orwell should be carefully ignored, for example, along with the delighted study of masterpieces), but it is your life you should work hardest to corrupt. If you avoid conscience, uncertainty, transcendence, independence from the system, wild nature, death, solitude, emotional stillness, the supersensitive delicacies of vibe-tone and the roaring insanities of love carefully and cleverly enough, you’ll be sure to generate line upon line of superficially stimulating life-sucking verbiage, filling your page, your reader’s lives, the world entire with more and more dazzling, ambitious, emotional, epic, enigmatic, sensuous, thoughtful, important, exuberant, compulsive, charming, expanding, multiplying, conviction, conception, vision, fact, analysis and opinion; book upon book, film upon film, article upon article, idea upon idea, until the psyche of the earth, strained to busting point with world upon world of ever increasing ever accelerating sequences of meaningless information, goes, POP!

Then there will be silence, and recognition.

So keep going. You’re doing a great job!

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