New Writers Must Be Careful Not To Emulate Bad Writing By Poor Authors

By Michael Neff

Many years ago I stumbled upon a Sydney Sheldon book on the rack at a local grocery store. I picked it up, read a bit, and said to myself: I can write better with my eyes closed.

Well, hyperbole or no, there was some truth in that statement. Most likely, the work was not written by Sheldon at all, but some hack ghost brought in by the publisher to poorly imitate Sheldon. Sound implausible? Not at all. Lots of big names are "hyperbranded" these days, i.e., they don't write their own stuff. They are a brand. Others write for them and the original authors simply wave a hand in approval, or nod their mythic head, or something such as that.

Regardless, new writers often make the mistake of emulating established authors who have grown lazy, hyperbranded, or just plain crappy over the years. They ape their characters, plots, and even writing styles, then become astonished or even hostile when agents or editors don't immediately praise them for their wondrous contribution to the American literary scene.

God bless 'em, it's not their faults really! After all, the book was on the shelf, yes? People were buying it, yes?

So what's the answer? New writers must learn to emulate authors who themselves are fairly new, and yet successful to a reasonable degree. Freshly minted authors are not only a much better weather vane for what the market wants in terms of premise, settings, and characters, but also in terms of prose style.

Recently I pulled a copy of FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION off the rack at Union Station in D.C., just to check on the state-of-the-art in that genre, and was disappointed to see poor writing by name authors. And by poor, I mean very poor. One author, an established SF/F type (who has been chumming around for decades), not only made himself offensive with a hackneyed hook, but bombarded my brain with "was" so relentlessly that I wanted to call him and beg him to attend a basic creative writing class in order to learn how to choose verbs at level somewhere beyond that of a sixth grader.

Keep in mind that the old gang of authors can cough on a page and get published. New writers cannot. They must choose their role models wisely!


  1. Wow, this is advice so many of us need to read. Great post! Thanks.

  2. Then again, James Frey aped Daniel Defoe in A Million Little Pieces (both in writing style and marketing), and wound up doing quite well.

    I think you have an excellent point, though. Generally speaking, aiming for something suitable for the grocery store checkout shelf to begin with is probably not the best.