How to Write Badly (and be successful)

The first rule, then, for a good style is that the author should have something to say; nay, this is in itself almost all that is necessary.

The Art of Literature, Arthur Schopenhauer

Would you like to be a successful hack journalist, writer of second-rate fiction or impenetrable and ultimately meaningless postmodern philosopher? Sometimes it seems impossible — it even seems, from time to time, as if quality is rewarded and what you need to secure a nice publishing deal and a comfy career as a broadsheet columnist is to write well. Nonsense of course.

The very best writing — the best screenplays, the best novels, the best essays, the best philosophy — does find a way out and into the long-flowing stream of genuine culture. Eventually. When it first appears however quality is nearly always greeted with widespread disinterest, one of many other ‘good books’ or ‘good films’ out there. These ‘many others’ are almost completely worthless, require no great sensitivity or insight or life-experience to generate, certainly no real craft, and yet do very well, sometimes lauded to high-heaven, groaning under the weight of awards, rave reviews, ‘buzz’. This is what you’re after, right? This is what you want? To be a successful writer of, effectively, excrement? The easy way? Well okay! Here’s how it’s done…!

Firstly and most importantly, as Schopenhauer well understood, if you want to be a successful bad writer you must have nothing to say. Of course you won’t realise that. You’ll think because you enjoy some decent literature, because something has happened to you in your life, because you’ve had a few ideas, because you — well, because you’re you — you’ve got something to say. In actual fact you’ve lived pretty much the same life as everyone else, gone to the same experience-limiting schools and universities, enjoyed the same reality-dimming pleasures, had the same predictable relationships (certainly with the same predictable endings), been on the same tourist trails, worked the same jobs, felt the same kinds of feelings and, essentially, lived the same kind of life as everyone else on earth. And you think you have something to say.

You have to admire the cheek of it; but it goes further. You’ve got no craft. Writing is no different to musical composition, cooking, joinery, close-up magic or foraging. It requires decades of punishing study, practice and self-denial. How many writers produce immortal work before the age of 30? or 40? Look at the photos and portraits we have of classic writers — were they made when they were young men? What do you think they were doing in all that time? They were living, of course, first of all living, exploring what reality really is, at the limits, gathering information, learning about life, but they were also reading, writing, studying, reading, writing, studying, reading, writing, studying, obsessively.

You’ve got no experience, not really, no skill, and you don’t really want to do what needs to be done to acquire either. You have no idea how to say something vivid and penetrating, how to create something truly beautiful, how to craft a great story redolent with the superb essence of humanity as it actually is… and if (big if) you find out what it actually takes to do so, you’re going to think ‘bugger that!’

So what are you going to do!?

Firstly, it’s no good having a slender vocabulary, no real understanding of language or how to use it. For many novice writers, for example, knowledge of the structure of a paragraph, that pre-empts and responds to your reader’s understanding, is 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, are not something novice writers 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 colossal amount of work piecing together your nightmare ham-fisted convolutions… like this one!

But although having no understanding of language (being monolingual is a bonus) and no interest in craft is essential if you just want to write badly, 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 trivial 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 totally and completely 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.
  • If you are writing for the screen; decadent imagery, food, porn, violence, ‘controversial subject matter’, CGI, signposts for depth, sloppy exposition, a few madcap moments or clever lines perhaps (around which the whole slog is written), but an entirely empty tale, in which everyone is, despite ‘quirks’ and ‘characteristics’ essentially the same.
  • Reportage: the tedious minutiae of your life or of your character’s. This one — the ‘oh my god look at that kettle’ school of literature — is crucial for the young writer with no experience of life; although filling up a book, and days of your poor readers’ life, when the entire point could have been reached in five or pages is a vital element in the skill-set of all successful, well-paid writers.
  • Interrogations of the hypnogogic anamnesis of subjects so alienated they can never be sure if your recondite professional art jargon or philosophical verbiage is, in fact, bullshit.

It helps, by the way, to 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’ or ‘How to Craft a classic Screenplay’ in a university prospectus), while, at the same time, ‘higher’ education instills 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 and emulating the masters and living a life worthy of expression; it is not fundamentally available to everyone, no, it’s either only for special people — so give up striving, dedicating and devoting yourself to mastery — or it doesn’t exist at all, so any ordure you present for consumption is valid.

What all this means is that the second and third-rate writer will, inevitably, spend most of his time telling, rather than showing. Because he is ignorant of an incredible reality we can genuinely share and without the tools to share it, he is forced to tell you about it. If he is writing a story, he can’t make it bright with recognition of subtle psychological vibe-truth, he can’t help us to understand characters in a new way and allow us to naturally care for them, he can’t masterfully arrange events so that the external world mirrors the internal world, forcing characters to confront and overcome themselves in archetypically satisfying sacrifice, he can’t sprinkle his stories with the bizarre brilliance of what can actually happen or the elusive, mystery of actually existing vibe. No — he can’t do any of that. Instead he judges his characters and then manipulates them into situations which are supposed to be deep, touching, exciting or funny; holding up, in effect, mood signs saying ‘cry’ (the dying mother) or ‘laugh’ (the madcap bungling) while we, the audience, think about our lunch.

The literary bungler has no real interest in what his senses reveal to him of the world, no capacity to lay wide his 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. Reality is always out of fashion for him, and so he must instead focus on imagination (whatever he can think up, or, closely allied, whatever he has read1) and reportage (the isolated, ideally media-filtered facts of experience). This will ensure that what he writes 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 the writer.

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…? You don’t quite know why you don’t care — and if you’ve never really cared, you won’t even know that you don’t — but you don’t. The important characters are speaking importantly, saying important things, doing important things, yet… it’s not important.

Talking of newspapers, if you are a columnist — one of the most degraded and futile of all human activities — you should also 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, professional, 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 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.

Schopenhauer was, as ever, a little closer to the bone;

A great many bad writers make their whole living by that foolish mania of the public for readint nothing but what has just been printed; journalists I mean. Truly, a most appropriate name. In plain language it is journeymen, day-labourers!

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, novelty 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; provided of course that you are paid for it. Only a madman writes for love alone.

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 flannel, 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!

Note

  1. He dismisses out of hand Tolstoy’s dictum that to express the things of the imagination is hard, but to express real life is harder still.