Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In Defense of Reading Bad Writing

You cannot be a good writer unless you read. This is pretty much a given, yes? You need to know how other people write so you can 1) learn from the pros and 2) figure out your genre/market. It's very much an osmotic kind of process—you'll absorb a lot of information about craft and style without really realizing it. Or at least I did.

But I'm of the opinion that you can't just read the good stuff. Sorry, but you can't. You have to read crap as well, and by "crap" I don't mean "trashy books". There are a lot of well-written trashy books. You need craft to write fluff novels, weekend reads, romances, and off-the-rack thrillers, just as much as you need it for literary fiction, commercial fiction, and the like. It's a different style, yes, but it's still craft.

No, what I mean by "crap" is anything containing purple prose, talking heads, repetitive sentences, clichés, and anything else that makes brains leak out of ears, eyes start skimming, and publishing professionals post "don't do this" blogs. It's the kind of stuff amateurs write, the kind of stuff you find pages of on, the kind of stuff we all write at some point. And reading it can be very educational.

If you* read a badly written book while unaware of what constitutes Bad Writing, you may or may not notice. At the very least, you might not realize why you've started skimming, why you don't want to pick the book back up again, why you're confused, and why you're left unsatisfied at the end.

If you read several badly written books while unaware of what constitutes Bad Writing, you'll start to see the trends. You'll notice the technical mistakes (clichés, dialogue tags, etc.) and you'll notice the plotting weaknesses (climax comes on too suddenly, Chekov's Gun is missing in the first act, etc.), and, I hope at least, you'll notice where you're doing similar stuff in your own work. You'll probably even have some ideas about how to fix the problems, because you'll start thinking things like, "Why didn't Bob hint about Immensely Important Plot Point instead of just springing it on us?", "Where the heck did Josephina come from?", and "This would read so much better if there weren't all these adverbs."

If you read a badly written book while aware of Bad Writing, you'll be more attuned to the errors, you'll likely notice more of them quicker, and you'll be thinking of solutions (or possibly saying, "I could do this better!" That's also good.). Reading several bad books while aware of Bad Writing is not particularly advisable for your sanity. You'll know when you should stop—and I by all means advise mixing Good and Bad, emphasizing the Good by a long shot.

Something else I've found helpful in terms of learning from Bad Writing? Editing it. It's one thing to read a book and think of fixes for a problem, and another thing to read a book and have to fix the problem. Or at least suggest fixes for the writer. I find I learn more … concretely when I have to write my ideas up, knowing that my ideas might be accepted and used, so they'd better be good. Also, I may not always be aware of, say, my adverbs, but I'm definitely aware of somebody else's, and editing them makes editing me easier.

Of course, "crap" is a subjective term. You may find even the best written "trashy novel" to be absolutely horrible, and that's fine. You're probably not intending to write that kind of book. You're destined for other things. Or you might spend years gladly, willingly, enjoyingly reading what I call "crap" and not care, not notice, not want to change your habits. That's also fine. We'll agree to disagree. But (and this is my main point, take notice): if you want to improve your own writing, reading flawed writing of any sort** will help.

* And by "you" I probably mean "I". I'm extrapolating, generalizing… I know this, and if my ideas don't fit your reality, my apologies.
** I know, I didn't mention short stories, screenplays, stage plays, blog posts, or fanfiction, but they also count.


Cordria said...

While I agree with you in general - reading bad writing DOES help - I disagree with some of the points. In my humble opinion, reading bad writing is only helpful when you know it's bad writing. Otherwise, it oftentimes does more harm then good.

For example, one of my friends loved bad writing for awhile. She fell in love with a certain author (who shall remain nameless) and read it non-stop. It wasn't 'trashy' or whatever, it was simply badly written. But she loved it.

So what happened? She wrote just like it. She couldn't see that it was bad writing, she simply figured that if it were published and accepted as 'literature', then it was something to emulate. She (thankfully) got off the phase and is now onto something new, but for awhile it was horrendous editing her work.

I have to imagine that this scenario plays itself out over and over again in the world of the 'unexperienced' writers or the 'I don't really care'-type writers.

Now, when you go into it knowing you're reading something bad, trying to figure out what's wring, or are experienced and knowledgeable enough to realize something's wrong, then reading 'bad' writing can very much be a positive thing. You can pick out the mistakes that way, work to fix them, and puzzle through 'how I'd do it differently'.

But to pick apart a story like you're saying requires thought and brain power and the desire to care that it makes sense rather than simply reading 'for pleasure' or something. A lot of people simply don't care or don't want to think - so the 'bad writing' styles get ingrained into their brains as okay.

In other news, I agree with you. :) I love reading bad writing, as it allows me to see what doesn't work and not make that mistake myself. Or, when I DO make the mistake, to know that I did it and appropriately *headdesk* until my brain figures out what an idiot I am. There are lots and lots of things to learn from bad writing - if you're willing to learn them.

I'm sure the readers of your blog will completely disagree with me, as your readers are probably the people like the two of us who find some perverse pleasure in picking apart bad stories and finding loopholes and rewriting them in our heads. :)

But I like being a devil's advocate every now and then. Spark a debate, listen to people complain and argue... not just go along with the flow like I usually do...

Still lovin' the blog. Keep up the awesome postings!


Jami Gold said...

Great points! This goes along with a thought I've had that I've been meaning to post about. I'll link back to this when I get that one done. Thanks! :)

Hannah said...

I highly recommend this blog, in which the author is working his way through and critiquing the Left Behind books:

It's a Christian blog, so he talks a lot about the bad theology of the books, but he also complains about the bad writing. A lot. Basically, this blog is what convinced me to take all the rhetorical questions out of my own work. And he's also hilariously funny.

Anassa said...

Cori - I think I can always count on you to play devil's advocate. :) And I think you've likely got a point. You've got to know at least a little about how to write well in order to improve at a decent rate—about as much knowledge as you'd get out of high school English if you paid attention.

Jami - Does it? Cool! I'm looking forward to seeing what you've written.

Hannah - I read the first little bit of that link, enough to get the idea. (It was long.) I've seen the books before, and have always thought they didn't look particularly good. Now I know why they don't sell very quickly…