I started as a writing tutor at a local community college about 17 years ago. I’ll never forget one of my first sessions with a student. I don’t remember what the whole essay was about, but the student was talking about the taste of blood and said it was like, “a rusty penny.” I suggested she change it for two reasons. First, blood contains iron, not copper. Second, copper doesn’t rust, it tarnishes. So, there’s no such thing as a rusty penny, and even if there were, its taste would be different than blood. The student insisted that that was one of the few things in her initial draft that the professor actually liked, so she really wanted to keep it in the essay. I was a new tutor at the time, so not yet experienced enough to easily say, “It’s not my paper.” I tried to tell her that the professor was wrong and that her paper would be better without the “rusty penny.” I ultimately lost the battle, and she kept the phrase. In hindsight, I’m glad she did. It really wasn’t my paper and who am I to dictate style and similes to the students? It was imagery, which is hard for most students. I’ve come to appreciate an honest try more than lazy correctness from amateur writers. But, if it had been a professional writer, I would have been incensed by the phrase “rusty penny.”
It’s a perfect example of sloppy writing and I hate sloppy writing. I can forgive a host of writing sins, but I can’t abide sloppiness. What, exactly, is sloppy writing? It’s when there’s something wrong with a piece of writing that should be noticeable to anyone. The two main kinds of sloppiness are getting bits of common knowledge wrong (like the rusty penny) and forgetting, or ignoring, something from earlier in the piece of writing. What makes them sloppy is that they come from a simple lack of attention.
Sloppy writing is different than lazy writing. Lazy writing is killing all the characters instead of putting in the work to solve a problem (See Rogue One for an example of this.). It would have been lazy for Tolkien to kill Frodo at the end of Lord of the Rings, but it wouldn’t have been sloppy. Deus ex machina is lazy writing, but not sloppy.
You may be asking why I’m writing about this now. Well, I’ve been watching Star Trek: Picard, that’s why. The writing on the show is so sloppy. It’s not at all lazy with the amount of Easter eggs they leave planted around. It’s just so, so sloppy. Some examples (mild spoilers): They seem to think that an accent and courage and loyalty are heritable traits. Two post-menopausal women had babies (I don’t technically know they were post-menopausal but given their ages now and the ages of the kids. . .). Everyone is surprised that changelings can pass a tricorder scan even though Deep Space Nine spent years doing blood screenings for that very reason. Data has died twice, once in Nemesis and once on this show, but he’s back again. At every turn, there’s something sloppy happening.
I’m singling out Picard, but sloppy writing has infected everything in Hollywood. The Star Wars sequels were sloppy. Jurassic World was sloppy. The new Dr. Strange was sloppy. All the DC movies are sloppy. I could go on.
I’ve written a lot over the years. I’m sometimes a lazy writer, although I try not to be. But I hope that, even at my worst, I’m not a sloppy writer. Would you let me know if I were?