Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Causes of Writing Death: Trivial Purposeful Falsity

We writers about writing mostly write about "good" writing; we give our readers helpful hints on how to write well and point them to masters like Homer and Dickens to show them how it's done.

Good writing, however, does not form the bulk of writing. Like islands lost in the vast Pacific, writing's great works rise as rare peaks above endless oceans of bad writing, books and journals in which the writing is so poor or feeble or dull or trivial or trite or pompous or false or malicious or stupid that it lives for a day and dies away.

Except by complete physical erasure, of course, writing cannot die. As long as the sentences obey the rules of grammar and as long as the ink sticks to the paper, we can read any writing good or bad that comes before our eyes, whether it's The Caxtons by Edward Bulwer-Lytton or Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Yet one day, despite our ability to read anything, bad writing becomes unreadable. We cannot read Tom Jones and The Caxtons with equal ease because the former delights us and the latter bores us. A few paragraphs of Tom Jones and our imaginations, pricked by Fielding's saucy wit, come alive with vivid people in vivid places. A few paragraphs of The Caxtons and our eyes glaze over, our minds defeated by his labored, limited view of life. We close the book. The writing is dead, R.I.P.

What kills writing? Not errors in grammar or weaknesses in style. Too many commas or a fondness for blowzy adjectives can bring a piece of writing to its knees, but in writing as in friendship, clumsy sincerity wears better than elegant vapidity. Here's a 1992 letter written home by a ten-year-old girl at summer camp:

Dear Mom and Dad,
I really want to come home. I hate it here. I cry every single day. Call me the minute you get this! I'm miserable, I'm wasting a summer by crying. 2 bees landed on me today. I feel like I've been here before a year. I hate the camp, the people, and being away from you. I already cried twice today and it's only 2:15.
You don't even write me. Please just let me come home! Please! How can you make me stay here when I'm so miserable? There is know-way you can make me stay here.
Write back. Please let me come home.
xoxoxoxo  Elizabeth

This scrap of writing glows with life; Shakespeare would be hard put to surpass Elizabeth's girlish passion. No matter how inexpert or unknown the pen, such writing will never die.

What kills writing is falsity, and the most common killer I call trivial purposeful falsity, TPF for short. For example, this from the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, March 25, 2001. An air of puffery inflates the Styles section week after week, its dozen flimsy pages trumpeting fashionable people and products far beyond their worth. Sensible readers know that Styles section articles are truly ads, not paid for but linked to paid ads elsewhere in the paper.

In that Sunday's Styles Rick Marin puffed "Plasma TV." To Marin's credit, he creates a consistently arch and amusing tone, and he does convey a few believable facts:

Last week Fujitsu lowered the price of its 42-inch screen from $15,999 to $9999.

Mr. Schurman, 44, is the national accounts manager for Recoton, a high-end audio company.

Yet as early as the fourth sentence, the bad writing begins:

I have become obsessed with flat, tube-free TV's, in particular those big wide plasma screens that until recently cost at least $10,000.

Why do I call this bad writing? Because I do not believe that Rick Marin is obsessed with tube-free TVs. He may get a kick out of them, but aside from needing to turn out his latest Styles piece (Marin is a frequent contributor), I believe he doesn't much care about flat screen TVs. Obsessed? Consumed by desire? Losing sleep? No, I do not believe Marin's assertion.

So what? you say. Of course Marin is not obsessed! His exaggerations are a game, a frivolous bit of make-believe, a few strokes of flattery ("You are cool. You are a better person") that we may harmlessly enjoy. I agree; we all know Marin is writing tongue firmly in cheek. Yet I still believe that Rick Marin wrote that he was obsessed with flat-screen TV's when he was not so obsessed. That TPF ensures that his writing will die.

Writing that tells the truth lives, writing that tells untruth dies; there lies the difference between good writing and bad. It is, I admit, not easy to prove that any writing is true or untrue. Perhaps part of Rick Marin does lust after flat-screen TVs. Yet whatever truth creeps into his article is at best a weak and waffly truth, worn out by Wednesday when we throw out the Sunday paper.

TPF lays waste to whole genres of romantic fiction. Despite Trollope's warning that "no terms have been more injurious to novelists than the words, hero and heroine," some writers can't resist the temptation to give readers the superheroes they yearn for. Travis McGee, the central character of a 1960s mystery series by John D. MacDonald ("32 Million Travis McGee Books in Print!"), is a remarkably resilient fellow. In Bright Orange for the Shroud, McGee gets shot: "the slug tore the whole top side of my head off." When he comes to, his right side is paralyzed and he's seeing double, but nothing daunted, he crawls across a yard and climbs a fence to get away from the bad guys. At the hospital his symptoms start to fade away, a miracle cure which MacDonald props up with a doctor spouting stilted paragraphs of medical jargon:

"The left hemisphere of the brain controls the motor nerves and sensory nerves of the right half of the body. We feel that a shock of that severity could well have stunned and deadened the synapses on that side, the nerve function, the ability to originate and transmit orders to the right side of your body. Sensation and control are returning so rapidly, we feel you should be back to normal feeling and use in a day or so."

A day or so? Good enough for most heroes, but within the hour Travis has washed the blood off his face, slipped out of the hospital, gone back to the bad guy's house, found a dead girl in the bathtub, figured out how she died (suicide), wrestled her body out of the tub and onto a bed and, using a disguised voice, called the cops to tell them where to find her. A few hours sleep and he's back on the case despite a wicked headache. "How is it now?" asks a friend. "Better" says the stoical McGee.

TPF makes writing a game gotten up between reader and writer, known by all players not to be true. Why? To satisfy our cravings for sweet deceit. So what if the puff piece deflates tomorrow? So what the hero survives certain death? We had fun today! I've enjoyed my idle hour under the spell of MacDonald's TPF as I have under Marin's, but I still predict that those thirty-two million Travis McGees, while not gone as fast as one Sunday Styles section, will one day vanish as if they never had been.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 14th 2010, 7:50 AM
Comment by: James R. (Port Neches, TX)
Upon finishing this beautifully-written article I thought back in time: My parents told me to never compare one's self with another. I am so thankful I learned that lesson.
Tuesday September 14th 2010, 9:30 AM
Comment by: Czar (Seattle, WA)
Thanks for the reminder. In the words of a late great jazz vocalist I can't recall, "Inspiration comes to those who are sincere."
Tuesday September 14th 2010, 9:59 AM
Comment by: Mr. Natural (Sabaneta/Medellin Colombia)
Good word, my friend. I got it!
Tuesday September 14th 2010, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
So . . . true.
Tuesday September 14th 2010, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Yikes! What an icky experience it was to read that MacDonald/McGee paragraph!

I like your TPF acronym and your point is well taken. When it is just a bit more subtle and comes from writing that is not supposed to be fiction we can get into real problems, can't we? From fellows such as Marin going on about plasma TVs and on into other arenas (such as all things political), writers need to tell the truth.

As an IT marketing writer/editor, I have to stand guard to keep TFP out of our collateral. Thanks for a good article this morning.
Tuesday September 14th 2010, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'm certain of the TPF in the example the writer gives, and I've read science fiction or fantasy fiction books where the falsity is too great to overcome my interest in the topic.

However, there are grey areas, when one must or should forget about accuracy if one is to enjoy the genre.

I'm thinking of the series Outlander/CrossStitch. Ms. Gabaldon has created rich characters who live in two worlds with historical accuracy (so far as I can check it). Yet the concept of the Time Travel of both, in so far as the concern for being responsible for the death of someone who is present in the later century, the Time Travel paradox, does bother me.

I know there are possible explanations for what happens, that it might be possible to TT and kill the ancestor, but those are not dealt with.

Yet the writing is so stunning, I read and reread!

And the Earth Children series is another example. It is the characters that I 'live' with, rather than the writing in this case. Examples abound of placing the New World in the old, yet I read and reread, caught up with Ayla and Jondolar.

Perhaps these are factors that can make TPF endurable.

Or perhaps I am just a fantasy fiction junkie!
Tuesday September 14th 2010, 2:22 PM
Comment by: James M.
An extraordinarily superficial piece--which does not even begin to deal with the prevalence of bad writing nowadays.
Tuesday September 14th 2010, 4:09 PM
Comment by: Robert G.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Literature teachers in high school and college give their students only the best-written essays, stories, novels, plays and poetry to read, write about and discuss in class. Michael Lydon's article suggests that perhaps teachers can promote the appreciation — and the creation — of good writing by giving their students some bad writing to read, not telling them that it's bad but allowing them to evaluate it and come to that conclusion themselves.
Wednesday September 15th 2010, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your comments. To Robert G, I'll say, I am thinking of having some of my students read some bad writing and see if they can find what makes it bad.

To Jane B: fantasy fiction can be just as true as earthbound realism if the writing stays true to its premises and metaphors, and if the writing finds emotional truths that it depicts honestly. If Xotha from Planet Tard loves Princess Mithrie from Galaxy Cabla, and if he grieves for her when she dies, it can be just a strong a tug on our heartstrings as when Bob loves Betty and grieves for her when she dies.
Thursday September 16th 2010, 6:02 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Michael: you're spot on with regards to the blurry line between fact and fiction.
Thursday November 11th 2010, 12:57 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)Top 10 Speller
Right on the button! My daughter wrote a particularly uncomfortable essay for the common app about five years ago. She described herself shedding tears for the hard-working Chinese family that ran the local lunch restaurant. Probably because they worked so hard in their new land.

She wouldn't own up to lying, despite gentle accusations of "arrant bulls---" but she did tone it down.

Application essays invite the most egregious sins, when the student is both trying to tell a heart-rending and touching story AND show his or her remarkable kindness, sensitivity, commitment to changing the world, and potential to be a major social entrepreneur.

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