I Write Badly

You could say I write badly.

I do this weird thing where I write short, one sentence paragraphs.  I also love fragment sentences.  And I start sentences with the word “and” (sometimes even paragraphs!).  I use commas way too much.  I end sentences with prepositions.

And yet, I love writing.  Weird, right?  The truth is, though, that I think the two are connected.

I used to hate writing classes.  Well, back when we were in middle school, they were really grammar classes, weren’t they?  Just a bunch of rules shoved down your throat.  I hated them because I hated rules.  And I was horrible at memorizing facts, which always seemed to run through my mind like a sieve.

The result being that I detested writing.  I saw it as a world where a mind like mine went to die.

The funny thing was that I was always good at the verbal part of standardized tests.  In high school, I got a perfect score on the “writing” section of the PSAT (again, really grammar).  And yet, if you asked me what any of the rules I was applying were, I would have had no friggin’ clue.

All I did was ask myself, “Does this sound good?”  And if it did, I chose that.

When I got the results for the test, I think that was probably the first time I ever thought I might have a knack for writing.

It wasn’t until college that I really started to tap into it, though.  It took an intro to fiction writing class with a very special teacher to change it all for me.

What a weird experience that was.  I remember how suddenly, I was in this thing called a “workshop”.   Our job was simply to write and to critique each other.  There were no rules.  We could write however we wanted.

So that’s what I did.  It was liberating.  Empowering.  I just wrote, and I didn’t care if there were fragments or if my commas were all over the place.  I was tired of writing the way the world had been telling me to.

And then something weird happened, something I didn’t see coming at all: (some) people liked my writing.  And my teacher liked it.  Encouraged it.

I think it was that combination of realizing the freedom inherent in writing and the encouragement of the people around me that made me aware that this was my passion.

As my writing has progressed, I can’t help but look back on all this with a sort of bittersweet retrospective glance.  On the one hand, it was so great to find this deep desire within myself to express myself with words.  Suddenly, all that reading I had been doing, how I was the only one in elementary school who would get huge stacks of books when the Scholastic book orders would come in, how I obsessed over Ender’s Game for  a year straight, and all the rest…. it made sense to me.

But the hard part is looking at my perception of writing before college.  High school.  Middle school.  Looking at years of my life I could have embraced this passion.  If there was even one class, one teacher, like I had in college, things would have been very different.

In my schools, there was no such thing as a creative writing class.  There was no class that told you, “Yes, there are rules, don’t worry too much about them.  Instead tap into who you are and extract something beautiful.”

And today, as I write with my bad grammar and my paragraphs starting with “and”, and my commas, and my fragments, and sentences that end with prepositions, I can’t help but be sad that there are probably many, many people out there like me.

Because what’s even worse about all this is that I think that it’s not just about some dude’s deep desire to write.  It’s really about a way of looking at reality that the Western world is sorely lacking.

There is a Steve Jobs interview where they asked him how some tech nerd like him was suddenly able to take over a business.  He explained that it “wasn’t that hard.”  All he did was ask everyone around him why they did what they did.

What he repeatedly discovered was that people would essentially tell him that they did it because that’s how it was done.  That was actually their reasoning.  Their “why” wasn’t from an internal source of intelligence and reflection, but from an external source of authority.

Jobs ended up not just changing the world of technology, but how his entire business worked, and if you read anything about the way Apple makes its products, you will see the indelible mark of a person that was not afraid to ask, “Why?”

And we can see the same thing that Jobs saw in the world of writing: Sure, people know the logic for why the rules of grammar exist, but they seem unable to understand why and when those rules should be bent or broken. To them, the rules have been handed down by some higher authority that can’t be questioned. There is no real logic, just a passive acceptance of the rules.

And, of course, this applies to so much more than just business and writing.  From the way we find careers (think of how we’re so trained to go through the exact same formula to reach success).  To the way we learn science (that whatever the scientists conclude must be right).  To the way we engage in our politics (we blindly follow one group and demonize the other).

This isn’t logical.  It’s dangerous.  It’s only using our left brains.  The “logical” side; the “rules” side.

But the problem with using only the left brain is that a left brain is just half a brain.  To process reality in a rich and real way, we need our right brains.  We need to think creatively.  And to think for ourselves.  Understand that the rules exist to access something deeper.

In the case of writing, that something deeper is what I touched on in my PSAT: “Does it sound good?” really meant: “What is the clearest way to communicate?”

90% of the time, good grammar is the way to go.  But the other 10% matters too.  The other 10% is the spice you put on your food that makes the flavor come out.

And such is life.

Our society is sorely lacking that thinking.  It’s time that we looked at reality with our whole brains.  It’s time we acknowledged the power of creativity, not as something that opposes logic, but as its essential other half.





25 responses to “I Write Badly”

  1. Leslie Joy Ickowitz Avatar
    Leslie Joy Ickowitz


  2. Katrina Bascom Avatar
    Katrina Bascom

    Beautiful! I especially loved “The other 10% is the spice you put on your food that makes the flavor come out.”

    My teachers always said they could read my personality in my writing. I never really follow the rules, either. But I was fortunate that when I asked, “Is that bad?” They said, ‘Sometimes, maybe, but it’s good, too.’

    Now I know how to write all passive like a scientist, when needed, but I also embrace my personal ‘spice.’

    The difference is, I totally didn’t get a perfect score on the standardized tests for writing, and writing is something I have generally avoided (read: disliked). It was my most procrastinated class, in college… but one of the few where I received an ‘A’!

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      I like your teachers.

  3. Beth Connell Avatar
    Beth Connell

    I write horribly. I think to myself that I should stop, but the truth is my blog is really the only person who cares to hear my poorly and randomly written thoughts. I can’t seem to stop so I just do.

    BTW, I think your writing is just fine, it may be because I think in fragmented thoughts so i understand how you write, but more than likely you are a better writer than you think you are.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Haha, well to be clear, and a bit full of myself, I think my writing is good. It’s why I do it so much and why I try so hard at it. My point is that “objectively” people might call it bad. It’s happened, and it’s usually by other writers.

      But my point is that “bad” writing is really good writing. It’s writing that is real, and true, and doesn’t limit itself to invisible authorities. If you’re not breaking any rules, you’re doing something wrong.

      1. Eve Chava Bolotin Avatar
        Eve Chava Bolotin

        Why is limiting oneself to the “invisible authorities” (and we can take THAT metaphor to many many other topics…) so wrong? Why is it that our classics, which are studied in school, and which changed the world (I do believe in the power of a good book) all followed the rules and were still so insightful and so impactful… I think unfortunately we appreciate “short sentences, too many comas, etc etc” b/c that’s how our thoughts are processed in our heads, and because we write like that in our text messages and 160 character tweets, we now love this type of writing…it’s only because our brains unfortunately cannot process anything more fleshed out than short sporadic sentences. I don’t think this is an improvement in literature & the arts… Maybe the reason it’s a new genre is because of our intellectual lackings? Does it get the point across..yes. Can it still be an interesting read, yes. Can there be a thought-provoking point within the text… yes. But does that mean that’s it is good WRITING?

        Also: “If you’re not breaking any rules, you’re doing something wrong”…that is so beyond cliched that I’d like to know, do you really believe that, or did it just sound good and reinforce your point?

        Also, “bad” writing is “writing that is real & true”, again, back to my first point, this phrase makes it sound (very much) like you assume “good writing” (aka following the rules) cannot be “real & true”. Again, do you really believe that, or are you putting down proper writing in order to show the benefit of your genre? If you truly believe in your style of writing, you should be able to defend it without putting down the thousands of literary masterpieces that very much followed all the “RULES”.

        1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

          If you think “thousands of literary classics” followed the rules just because they are old, or used a different style than more modern writing, than you haven’t read the classics close enough. I doubt you will be able to follow one literary classic that followed the rules perfectly, and I can bet you will find many that broke much more than I and many other bloggers do.

          The idea that “if you aren’t breaking rules, you’re doing something wrong” is a cliche because it’s true. It’s, in fact, a cliche in creative writing classes because it’s something that’s said very often: the good writers break the rules. Not willy-nilly, of course. But they know when and how to do it.

          If anything, the idea that you are giving over, of “proper writing” is a modern invention, this weird notion that writing somehow can even be proper. Grammar exists as a guideline to shape our writing, but it is in no way hard and true. In fact, if anything, the creative writers you’ve mentioned have been complaining for generations about the critics who claim writing has hard and fast rules.

          Here are a few literary greats and their thoughts on art:

          “Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced” – Leo Tolstoy

          “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” – E. B. White

          “When I hear the hyper­crit­i­cal quar­rel­ing about gram­mar and style, the posi­tion of the par­ti­cles, etc., etc., stretch­ing or con­tract­ing every speaker to cer­tain rules of theirs. I see that they for­get that the first req­ui­site and rule is that expres­sion shall be vital and nat­ural, as much as the voice of a brute or an inter­jec­tion: first of all, mother tongue; and last of all, arti­fi­cial or father tongue. Essen­tially your truest poetic sen­tence is as free and law­less as a lamb’s bleat.” – Henry David Thoreau

          “I am almost sure by witness of my ear, but cannot be positive, for I know grammar by ear only, not by note, not by the rules. A generation ago I knew the rules–knew them by heart, word for word, though not their meanings–and I still know one of them: the one which says–but never mind, it will come back to me presently” – Mark Twain

          “Sometimes with ‘The New Yorker,’ they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth.” – David Sedaris

          “You have noticed how teachers, critics, parents, and other know-it-alls, when they see you have written something, become at once long-nosed and finicking and go through it gingerly sniffing out the flaws. AHA! a misspelled word! as though Shakespeare could spell! As though spelling, grammar and what you learn in a book about rhetoric has anything to do with freedom and the imagination!” – Brenda Ueland

          1. Eve Chava Bolotin Avatar
            Eve Chava Bolotin

            I don’t think classics followed the rules bc they are old… I think they followed the rules, because, well, they did! And did they maybe break a rule here or there, in an attempt to emphasize a certain phrase, or tone…sure! But that is very different than having an any text be devoid of rules. As you said, good writers know “when and how to [break the rules]”, meaning, it’s not done constantly, as if these rules don’t even exist. I’m not sure what you mean when you say grammar serves as a guideline but is not “hard & true”… are you saying this specifically to writing? specifically to creative writing? Or should this be applied to speech as well. Just curious, didn’t quite understand that part.

            Also, what do you mean by “creative writers”.. writers that break the rules? Or is it a genre in and of itself, (not defined by “rule breaking”)?

            Also, your quotes… hmm. Not sure how I feel about that. I would much prefer to have seen a piece by one of the above writers showing where they break rules. Also, regarding Mark Twain’s quote… he is not saying that he does not follow the rules of grammar, he is just saying that he doesn’t “know” them, only by how they sound… I’m the same way with English… I don’t know the name of the tenses etc, but you can bet I know how to speak properly and correctly!

          2. Elad Nehorai Avatar

            But that’s what I’m saying. They really DIDN’T follow all the rules all the time. Just look at the sentence by Mark Twain I quoted. Even if you would agree he knows the rules intuitively, as you said, you can see that he didn’t stick to it perfectly. And you can see it with so much of his other work.

            If you want to see a really extreme example, just check out James Joyce’s work, especially his later stuff. Here’s a random selection I just picked out of his book Ulysses:

            “Thousand places of entertainment to expense your evenings with lovely ladies saling gloves and other things perhaps hers heart beerchops perfect fashionable house very eccentric where lots cocottes beautiful dressed much about princesses like are dancing cancan and walking there parisian clowneries extra foolish for bachelors foreigns the same if talking a poor english how much smart they are on things love and sensations voluptuous. Misters very selects for is pleasure must to visit heaven and hell show with mortuary candles and they tears silver which occur every night. Perfectly shocking terrific of religion’s things mockery seen in universal world.”

            Yep, that’s from one of the most celebrated books in the canon.

            As I said in some of the other comments, I’m not arguing here against the rules. I even said in the post itself that writers will, of course, write at least 90% of their writing with good grammar. The point is just not to be a slave to the rules for no reason. Your real goal is communication.

            So, while I guess you could say this applies mostly to creative writing, I don’t even know if that itself is true. Sometimes a fragment will work even in a formal document. And if you’re anything like most people, communicating on Facebook, Twitter, texts, etc is usually more about being efficient than being perfect with grammar. Our writing today is in different kelim than it used to be, and that means adapting in a way the rules of grammar might not be ready for.

  4. Stephen Avatar

    I think you just put to words exactly what I’ve been feeling for a few years now.

    I always hated writing, but every time I wrote something, someone would come up and tell me they enjoyed it. Really? I literally failed college english. I can’t write.

    But then I realized my lack of formal writing education is what allows me to write in the same way that I talk. And apparently, people enjoy that.

    I’ve come to realize that I enjoy it as well.

  5. David Karpel Avatar
    David Karpel

    Great post, Elad.

    Writing is communication. As long as the communication is clear, the writing passes muster. But there is a clear difference between good writing and bad writing.

    I teach English Language Arts in a high school, so I am faced with this issue all of the time, especially when it comes to putting a grade on a student’s piece of writing–on anything from short responses to reading (in which the communication of an answer is often more important than whether or not the answer is “right”) to essays of every type.

    When it comes to grammar, I’m not too concerned with my students knowing the names of all the rules–just as long as they know how to formulate clear sentences. In my experience as a student, an English major, and an English teacher, what distinguishes the good writing from the bad (and I’m sticking to these simple terms to stay with your point) is the achievement of clarity–requiring the expression of an idea built with interesting details–and a unique voice–requiring the use of the right language for the right audience.

    Starting sentences with and, but, or because can work. Students read sentences like these everywhere–in books, magazines, newspapers–so it is difficult to teach it as wrong. And sentence fragments work, especially in creative writing, but they should not be overused (see Hunger Games). I am of the opinion that all writing, even essays!, should be creative. Essays, like your blog posts and good blog posts in general, are really the story of an idea.

    Thank you for writing badly, Elad. We need more bad writers like you getting us thinking in a voice, language, syntax, and grammar we understand.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Beautifully put! And it’s nice to know there are teachers out there that “get it”. Gives me hope for the future. And of course I totally agree with every word.

      1. David Karpel Avatar
        David Karpel

        Yasher koach!

        By the way, some of my former students read your blog regularly, so they know good writing when they see it, apparently. It’s a small, small world.

  6. John Tompkins Avatar
    John Tompkins

    You don’t write badly. It’s actually akin to a journalistic style. I write pretty much the same way. It’s pretty effective for blogging.


  7. Nina Badzin Avatar

    No! I think I write just like you do– and not badly. We write conversationally. I see that as a good thing.

  8. Ruchi Koval Avatar
    Ruchi Koval

    so I’ll tell you. Because you asked. I think grammar is really important. Bad grammar distracts the reader. But within that, writing is an art. which means rules are a suggested framework, not a prison.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      To be clear, I’m not against grammar. I agree it’s really important. But we should look at it accurately. I think it’s inaccurate to assume that all bad grammar distracts the reader. I think, for example, that when we talk, we often put prepositions at the end of sentences. It just sounds natural. A lot of times I will stop myself as I’m writing and notice I placed a preposition at the end of a sentence, and no matter how I try to change it, it just sounds better the original way.

      Grammar can’t always be a guide because language is always changing. And due to the internet, whether you like it or not, language is changing faster than ever. People process language, especially written language, in ever-evolving ways.

      Again, as I said, I think grammar is great. But we need to see it in context.

      1. Ruchi Koval Avatar
        Ruchi Koval

        (my comment weirdly went to the wrong place and I can’t delete it so…) so…maybe what you’re saying is that not all incorrect grammar is bad grammar.

        1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

          I guess it depends how you define grammar. I would change what you said to: “maybe what you’re saying is that not all incorrect grammar is bad COMMUNICATION.”

  9. Ruhina Avatar

    I really enjoyed this post. I’m in middle school, and I can relate to how you felt about the “rules” even though I didn’t get the amazing verbal scores that you did. Writing is really something that no one should define, and by defining it yourself, as Steve Jobs did to “techonology” (in a general sense), you can go really far, like you and your writing.
    Great analysis. We need more like this on the net.

  10. Ruchi Koval Avatar
    Ruchi Koval

    so…maybe what you’re saying is that not all incorrect grammar is bad grammar.

  11. […] at Pop Chassid, there’s a new post about why the author writes […]

  12. Brian of London Avatar

    Enjoy it. I suffer from similar afflictions to you but, to my eye, especially online, short paragraphs are essential and most of the other stuff flows nicely.

    One problem and solution I have: too much of “that”. After everything I write I search for “that” and usually just delete 80% of all the “that’s” I find.

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      For sure. This isn’t a post about not improving our writing, or anything else. I guess that’s the danger of taking the idea too far: that we assume the rules are meaningless or have no value at all.

      But yeah, all about the two sides of logic and creativity working together.

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