Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

The difficulty of writing good “bad” writing

Writing Graded Readers is not easy, despite the apparent simplicity of the end product. But one of the hardest parts of Graded Readers is having to do away with many of the Rules of Good Writing. I cringe at some of the things I have to disregard.

Snoopy understands

Snoopy understands

The one I rebel at the most is adverbs.

The adverb is not your friend […] I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs. ” Stephen King, On Writing

In regular writing you go through your work on an adverb cull and it always improves what you wrote. You tighten up your verbs and show more than you tell every time. In Graded Readers, to help students build words from what they know eg He is a dangerous driver -> He drives dangerously, you have to put them in all over the place. It’s like scattering shit all over your favourite carpet.

On my second Graded Reader, As Other See Us, my editor made me add them in on a second draft. I had to go through my available adjectives, lube them up with some -LY and insert them wherever I could.

The road to hell inclines ever more sharply until you’re falling speedily towards being eternally damned. *** Because the easiest way to increase adverb  pollution is putting adverbs in dialogue attributions.

Do not use adverbs! Especially not in dialogue attribution.  Stephen King, On Writing


I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions . . . and not even then, if you can avoid it. Stephen King, On Writing

I have characters speaking angrily, happily, sadly, quickly and slowly. The result: I am writing badly.

But doing a good job.

Dialogue attributions at all are usually something to cleanse your work of. Good dialogue is recognisable as the character and it will be clear who’s speaking. In low level Graded Readers, every line must be attributed.

And then, to compound the clutter, you cannot just use the “invisible said”, you have to turn to your available verbs and pick out all the speaking ones. So I have characters that say, tell, ask, question, repeat, answer, agree, argue, cry and call. The result: “I hate myself,” I self-loathed miserably.

(No matter that E.L. James has earned millions doing exactly what  that last sentence just did to you.)

Repetition and recycling, the goal of Graded Readers when new, out of level (OOL) vocabulary is introduced and the by product of a limited word list, is another thing to be avoided in regular writing. So, you can’t have someone be starving, only hungry or very hungry. Someone will be afraid but not scared or frightened or terrified or petrified. Someone can walk but not stroll or wander or stride or pace or mince.

Of course, sometimes this is a good thing. In my normal writing my characters think, they don’t pontificate, ruminate or cogitate. And nor should they as varying vocab can lead writers into a who’s got the biggest thesaurus contest.

An even more annoying repetition is personal pronouns. You use them and you use them again in the same sentence even if the verb is carried out by the same subject. It really slows sentences down but it makes it easier for low level readers as tracking back the action in a sentence can be really tricky, especially in a language that only has a third person and no other subject inflections.

Result: “I make excuses and I ask you to forgive me,” I beg supplicatingly. You can let me off or you can deride me in Amazon reviews.

However, some skills hold as true for Graded Reader writing as for any writing. Show don’t tell is just as important, if not more so, when you’re trying to improve reading skills and vocabulary. “She was happy again” is a lame sentence when you can say “She laughed and the light returned to her eyes”.

You also still need a story and distinguishable characters and if anyone thinks that’s easy, try achieving them with only 600 headwords. They’re more labour intensive and require more attention and care than the regular fiction I write. That said I write the lower level Graded Readers because I find them easier and editors tell me that’s where they tend to have a gap so I assume other writers find that harder.

Why I find lower levels easier is probably a lot to do with the fact they’re shorter. And, psychologically, because I have to write under such severe word and structure limitations, I can hide behind that excuse in case anyone exposes the thing I still fear – that I’m a bad writer. The challenge of this type of writing is in managing the tools you have to say what you want to say, while for a novel, the art lies in choosing the tools  and sounding clever or meaningful, but most importantly, original.

Some plot lines or feelings get sacrificed to level. Forget anything that involves Back to the Future style time travel into the past, speculating about the past or weighing up future consequences when you’ve got no conditional structures and limited modal verbs.

Regrets? You might have had a few but you can no longer express them without past perfect and third conditional. You can only have characters question themselves: “Why did I do X?” Actually as a life strategy maybe we should all do away with those two structures since self-questioning is a lot more useful than the Thought Crime of regretting the past. Orwell was right.

I just hope I don’t regret writing this post. I love writing Graded Readers and wouldn’t want anyone to have the impression otherwise.

*** I can’t not point out the sentence as it should be as I am still crippled by the fear you’ll think I don’t know better: “But the road to hell inclines ever more sharply until you’re hurtling towards eternal damnation. Hmmm, you know what? That first adverb, sharply, is OK!

5 comments on “The difficulty of writing good “bad” writing

  1. Jeremy Taylor
    January 8, 2014

    Nice article. I remember writing a low-level reader for Penguin many years ago. I wrote: Grandad put on his new pullover. The editor decided ‘put on’ was too difficult so he changed it to: Grandma gave grandad a pullover. A minute later, grandad was in his new pullover. Ow…

    • Nicola
      January 8, 2014

      Yes, it’s tricky with the phrasal verbs. In my opinion (which counts for nothing!) I think one like your example where the “on” describes” location, it is understandable, whereas a more metaphorical meaning eg. he put on an accent would need changing. I know I was told once to keep the two parts together – which you did – so for my money I’d have kept it and illustrated the putting on in the artwork. But, as I said, unless I’m editing these one day, it doesn’t matter what I think!

  2. adamfromteachthemenglish
    February 2, 2014

    I remember reading fairy tales to my kids in Turkish and finding the dialogue attributions quite useful, as I was at a very low level of Turkish at the time. It was a bit of a let down, though, when all this proved useless when trying to read actual books, or newspapers. I can’t imagine the frustration you must feel writing these things.

    • Nicola
      February 3, 2014

      I don’t exactly find it frustrating, it’s just a mindset change. I can see that learners need to squeeze as much vocab out of a sentence as possible to learn a language but as you say, they just won’t see it elsewhere. Or not in good writing, but actually there is so much bad writing out there, they will find it everywhere!. They just shouldn’t copy it. Not that most students will write fiction in English as their goal anyway, I suppose.

  3. Pingback: Cliché – The Teacher’s Friend | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

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This entry was posted on January 4, 2014 by in Graded Readers, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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