Stop Calling Books “Badly Written”

Here’s a pet peeve of mine: I’m raving about one of my favourite books on twitter and someone pops up to say “Yeah, I wanted to like that book, but it’s so badly written.” Badly written? I loved that book! And this isn’t someone’s first draft that hasn’t had the grammatical errors ironed out. This is a traditionally published book that has gone through many hands and been professionally edited. This is a book with a high Goodreads rating. Say what you will about it, but you should admit that it’s competently written. It obviously does the job, or it wouldn’t have gone this far.

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The thing about saying something is “badly written” is that it describes nothing. The whole book is writing! Writing is not a distinct element to criticize! It’s like saying you don’t like a song because it’s badly played. I guess I’m saying that the phrase “badly written” is badly written, because it’s vague and all-encompassing. (See? I specified.)

What frustrates me about this is that it assumes your preferred writing style is the only correct one. Sometimes a book is labelled “badly written” because it’s too descriptive, too “flowery.” Other books get the same label for being to-the-point, not poetic enough. It’s badly written because it has too much dialogue. Or the dialogue doesn’t sound like how you and your friends talk. It’s too hard to follow. It’s too simple. All critiques that can thrown under the umbrella of “badly written.”

None of those things are necessarily bad, though. What you hate in a writing style, other people will gravitate towards. You not liking a book doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It just means it’s not for you. It was a bad match.

Of course, there are exceptions to this. A book—even a traditionally published, theoretically edited book—can be badly written. It can be riddled with typos. Its timeline can be nonsensical. It can have errors. Bad books exist! But most of the books being called out as “badly written” don’t fall under that description.

Please, if you review books or discuss books, consider removing “badly written” from your vocabulary. It’s a lazy way to dismiss a book. If you really think something is wrong with the book, be specific! Otherwise, it’s not useful to other readers. Saying “There were so many characters that I couldn’t keep track of all of them, and many seemed unnecessary to the plot” will be a deal-breaker for some readers, and negligible for others. Without context, “badly written” sounds like the book is not worth anyone reading.

So next time you read a book and find yourself thinking “This is badly written,” ask yourself “Why? What about the writing is bad? How could it have been better?” And if you don’t have a good answer to that…maybe just keep that opinion inside your head.