Sandra Tsing Loh is a bad writer

I’ve thought of myself as a pretty good writer since I was in elementary school, having been told several times throughout my life by people worth listening to that I had a talent for it. I just haven’t had any training in writing since 12th grade&#8212writing, that is, for the general public on topics like history, culture, sociology, political science…you know, things you might write an English or History essay about&#8212I have had plenty of training in scientific writing and, much to my pleasure, I have mostly excelled at that.

But sometimes I’ll read an essay online at a blag or a magazine that strikes me as very professional, very analytical but accessible, very thorough but easy to get through, and formal without being pretentious. The individual sentences and paragraphs are phrased well and the entire article is organized and flows well. They make their point convincingly without seeming biased or like they had to try overly hard to make it. I say, “I want to write like that. That’s professional writing by a well-trained and -practiced person who doesn’t let their love of their own writing get in the way of the content.”

The two main aspects of people’s writing that I see often on the internet that highlight their lack of writing talent are: bad grammar and punctuation (obviously), and over-use of florid language and fancy words. Being bombastic. I can spot a mediocre writer who’s trying to impress people with his/her allegedly fancy writing skillz from a mile away. Writing well rarely means using complex sentences or SAT words, and when those are involved they are few and far between. Everyone should take Louisa May Alcott’s motto to heart: Never use a large word when a small one will do just as well. No, this doesn’t mean you have to write like Hemingway, but Hemingway is better than Faulkner.

Sandra Tsing Loh is a perfect example of this type type of writing fallacy. Contrast the aforementioned professional writers who impress me and make me want to write like them to this self-absorbed, pretentious douchebagette who writes for The Atlantic. (I italicized that not only because it’s the title of the publication but also for emphasis: this pompous hack who is in no way, shape, or form a better writer, a better social critic, or a better person than you or me writes for the fucking ATLANTIC monthly. If she can do it, I sure as hell could.)

I first heard of this Sandra Tsing Loh character from Fark.com, where a recent article of hers made the main page and was commented on extensively. First, read the article and then read the comments from Farkers. At least some of them. Go on, do it.

Okay, now that you agree with me and them, I can quote a couple Farkers who hit the nail on the head in the discussion thread:

“Oh my LORD that woman is in love with herself and her vocabulary. I love big words and intelligent writing but I wanted to punch her in her martini-swilling face.”

“Ughh. I honestly tried to read that, but it was like eating five pounds of potatoes. The first paragraph or two were okay, but halfway through I felt nauseated and bloated and I couldn’t continue.”

“I got about 1/3 down the page before my brain just couldn’t parse anymore.

That essay is an abuse of language that should be punishable by waterboarding.

You torture us, we torture you. Now put down the Thesaurus and get back in your cave.

/Oh yeah, and the essay contents weren’t any better”

Yeah, the comments on the substance of Loh’s article were more insightful and important, in the grand scheme of things, than the comments about the writing style, but I’m writing about writing right now, all right? Lastly: this Fark.com thread does some good to dispel my impression of Farkers as bitter, hateful, spiteful, religion-hating, government-loving zealots who would scarcely be more pleasant in real life than they are in anonymous discussion threads. They still wouldn’t recognize a property right if it smacked them in the face, but they sure can hit the nail on the head about some relationship/sexual/social issues.

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2 Responses to Sandra Tsing Loh is a bad writer

  1. Erin says:

    You didn’t once quote Loh in your attempt to convince your reader (me?) that she is, indeed, all that you say she is. The quotes from a bunch of otherwise untrustworthy (according to you) ‘farkers’ is hardly an effective use of logos on your part. Also, don’t you think it’s important to consider that the controversial content of the article is enough to provoke the commenters that disagree to engage in ad hominem attacks? I’ve never been convinced that an opinion is right simply because a (how big?) community of people are convinced and like to be vocal (and childish) about it.

    You might add me to your stack of data: I think Loh is an incredible writer. Acerbic? Sometimes. Witty? Yes. Mellifluous? Definitely. Pretentious? That answer will inevitably differ from reader to reader.

    Look through her paragraphs individually. She does not use obscure or pretentious words in excess. I only looked through a few paragraphs prior to writing this comment, and in at least two I found no ‘exceptional’ use of vocabulary. I did, however, find exceptional use of grammar and literary/rhetorical devices. Perhaps you know about them?

    The attitude conveyed in her writing seems to fit her real-life personality. She’s sharp. She’s bold. She’s creative. She may even be a little pretentious. Whether a writer is likable is one thing, but likability is not a reasonable factor in evaluating a writer’s skill.

    She’s a great writer (yeah, I find The Atlantic more credible than a bunch of foul-mouthed commenters). You? You’re, at best, a good writer. This is not meant to be an insult, but …

    Your post reminds me a little of those Tea Party protesters wailing in defense of their native language with placards ridden with misspelled words. If you’re going to argue that you’re a better writer than somebody, you best be able to demonstrate it.

    I’d love to further this discussion. I have a lot to say on the matter, but a paper I’ve been avoiding is nagging for attention.

    I recognize that I am very late joining the, er, conversation. However, I am even more curious for this reason: do you still feel this way about Loh? Have you read her more recent (and even more sharp, witty, dark, acerbic) articles? I recommend them, if not to simply challenge yourself to better understand why you dislike her writing.

    Erin

  2. John says:

    Erin,

    No, I haven’t come across any more of Loh’s writing, but I’ll probably pay closer attention to it now, whenever I do. Thanks for offering your opinion of my writing; I’m glad you interpreted this post as an invitation for readers’ input on my own writing, though I don’t think this blog, containing mostly cursory remarks and rants about things that annoyed me, is the best sample to judge from. I should also mention that I don’t think I am a better writer than Loh on the topics that The Atlantic publishes, but that I could become one with practice and training. As I admitted above, the only type of writing I’ve ever actually excelled at after high school is scientific (biomedical) writing.

    Here are a few words and phrases from the cited column that I found annoying and pretentious, since you asked:

    “as the golden late-afternoon sunlight spilled over the wall of Balinese masks” – What are these Balinese masks she refers to? How is that relevant to the description of a marriage counseling session?

    “explicator” is completely unnecessary. As far as I can tell, it means “explainer”, which doesn’t make sense in context. Does she mean “example” or “representative” or something similar?

    “nestled in the historic enclave in Pasadena dubbed Bungalow Heaven” – it is by now cliche to describe a house as being “nestled” anywhere.

    “To Ian’s culinary adventurousness, Rachel attributes the boys’ sophisticated taste buds” – It would be more clear and reader-friendly to just order these phrases the way we normally would: “Rachel attributes the boys’ sophisticated taste buds to Ian’s culinary adventurousness”.

    “our village of longtime marrieds” – does she mean a literal village/community or something more like a clique, social network, or circle of friends?

    “a sexless remodeling project” – I guess I don’t see why that metaphor is helpful in that sentence.

    I hardly think “herewith” is a useful word outside of legal documents, and maybe rarely even in those.

    Honestly, there weren’t many individual sentences or phrases that could be considered bad or pretentious or turgid—in fact, some of them are just fine individually—it’s just that one thing after the other adds up to make that essay feel kind of pretentious and annoying. I feel like she tried to add a lot more…I don’t know…richness, imagery, sophistication to that essay than the subject matter called for. She can’t go to bed with mere wine, she has to specify that it’s merlot; the sun couldn’t shine on those Balinese masks, it had to spill over them; her 40’s are a cluttered forest instead of something less metaphorical; our daughters can’t have mere wedding invitations but rather must have Tiffany-blue ones; the aisles of the church have to be flower-bedeckled; she can’t have dinner or go out to eat with someone but rather dines with them (twice in one paragraph); Americans can’t merely have, but rather must endure, the highest divorce rate in the Western world; Rachel’s home life can’t seem healthy and happy, but rather “her own home fires seemed to roar so warmly”.

    I think I could summarize my feelings about her essay thusly: Most of her uses of metaphor, imagery, and other turns of phrase are perfectly apt, effective, and admirable individually, but the only way that many of them would appear in a single essay is if she was trying to use a lot of them—going out of her way to change straightforward wordings into flowery, pretentious, or overly descriptive ones. Another way of saying it: You’re generally not supposed to notice good writing. One oft-repeated definition (or at least major requirement) of good writing is that you don’t notice the author or their voice on the page. Loh’s writing, in contrast, screams for the reader to notice it, to appreciate it—i.e., to notice and appreciate her.

    Finally, that essay contained too many personal details about her life and her friends’ lives. She went into unnecessary detail about Rachel, Ian, their children, and their house given the main topic of her essay, which is that a different family structure and different notions of marriage would improve the lives of a lot of American families and individuals. The essay would have been more effective if it had been considerably shorter. Take the list that begins with “I can pick up our girls from school every day”; that list should have been about three lines shorter.

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