Thanks to Twitter, I have windows into quite a few venues where writing of varied quality may be read and--sometimes--laughed at. Not talking about humor, here, but about writing that is unintentionally bad. Recently, in the guise of research, I've been following medievalists.net on Twitter, clicking through to the articles that looked interesting. Quite often these are theses or dissertations, straight academic writing...and some of these...some of these would have benefited from some editorial guidance. The usual response to a complaint about academic writing is that it's all bad and the students are taught to write that way...but that's not true. Having recently bulldozed my way through more than a dozen such papers, it's clear that some of the degree candidates learned to write well, and some weren't given enough time in the trenches of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax.
The same was true when I was in graduate school in biology and reading papers in multiple scientific journals. Some were well-written (I still recall some papers by Anne O. Summers, on various ecological topics in the Chesapeake Bay area as exemplary in writing) and some were...well...sludge scraped off the bottom of a polluted pond comes to mind. Whatever data may have been in them had been well concealed in murky writing.
As a fiction writer, I face some requirements nonfiction writers can ignore: clarity matters to both, but the kind of data a biologist needs to convey (whether it's the change in growth rate of algae in reaction to a specific contaminant, or details of animal behavior) remains factual--appealing to the intellect, not the emotions. Stating the hypothesis, the methods--how the experiment or observation was carried out, the results (including the logic used to arrive at the results) in language that does not obscure any of these is sufficient. The fiction writer has more to do with the same linguistic tools: we must convey not only the "facts" (who said what, who did what, the chronological order in which characters said and did things) but the character--the psychology--of the characters, the nature of the culture in which the story is set, the effect on the characters of that culture and the physical setting (including terrain, infrastructure, weather...), the emotional tone of every interaction (or tones, I should say, as characters interacting may be--should often be--in different emotional states), the overall tone of the story, the overall "pull-through" or "impulsion" of the plot. Just for starters.
I've read a lot of novice stories (other than my own) in workshops and in the clandestine sharing of slush pile remnants by editors with favorite writers. The same problems I see in indifferent-to-bad academic writing show up even more vividly in fiction, because fiction demands more. The clumsy sentence, the stacked adjectives, the participle dangling in the wind of ridicule, the paragraph that's upside down (what should be first is last) or inside out (the "meat" is on the outside, the top and bottom slices of bread--the transitions into and out of the "meat" are in the middle)--they're found in both nonfiction and fiction.
Although I've been scolded for saying so, I still think Strunk & White's Elements of Style would help novice writers fix most of the pond-sludge-mess writing I see. Why? Because part of the sludge comes from the writers' attempt to be formally correct, rather than clear. The current misuse of apostrophes and reflexive pronouns, for instance, arises from concern for formality (I know that because I've asked those who've shown me their manuscripts with such horrors as ""There is a place that is known as a place where things happen; it is called [nameofplace]" or "They gave it to myself.") Many novice writers are afraid of "I" and "me" and use the reflexive. Others are convinced (from signs and the growing misuse) that apostrophes signal plurals. In both academic writing and fiction, I find sentences and passages that struggle to be impressive, intellectual, important...and instead reveal the writer's inability to express the meaning clearly.
I will agree with the linguists that many grammatical rules do not "make sense"...logically, that is. But they do "make sense" of writing: they make it easier to grasp the writer's meaning. And the point of writing (unless your purpose is to shock and dismay the reader) is to convey something--be it data from an experiment or the mood of a character in a story--as smoothly and effortlessly from page to a reader's understanding as possible. Writers who do not know most of the rules write passages that take longer to read and understand. It's not a matter of words per sentence--a well constructed long sentence is easier to read than a badly constructed short one. There are long, intricate sentences in Ruskin, for instance, that unroll easily in the mind, each phrase with its meaning flowing into the next. And I've read a book designed for people with reading difficulties written in turgid short sentences of short words....reading it feels like being hit in the face with a brick, over and over.
As it's late at night and I've been writing through a migraine--and I began this with no clear end in view--this is another example of faulty writing. A ramble with no goal, idle comments on the roadside briars and flowers. As a writer of quite a few books and stories and articles over quite a few years of publication, I know my own imperfections. (I'm finishing a book which once again revealed--as I plowed through the layers of revision--where I go wrong, which is exactly where everyone who writes goes wrong, more or less. Sentences out of order, clunky phrases, less-than-perfect word choice, idiosyncratic punctuation where standard would be more effective. ) When healthy and first-drafting in the daytime, I automatically avoid some mistakes I used to make--that many make. That reflexive thing? Not happening. Apostrophe abuse? No. Passive voice where it doesn't belong? No. (But--weasel-active verb forms that pretend to be active? Yes. They sneak in. I catch them in revision.) When stressed, sick, worried, overtired (and after midnight, which it is now) everything but the habit of clicking on the keys may go awry.
Clarity. Simplicity. Directness. Good things. Bumbling around piling adjectives on adverbs. Bad things.