Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Benefits of Reading Bad Writing

Up and coming writers are always given the advice to read as much as possible, but what you read has a lot to do with how much you learn from that reading.  If you are always reading course-assigned literature, you are always reading good writing.

If every chocolate chip cookie that I ate was delicious, that doesn't mean that I would be able to bake a delicious chocolate chip cookie myself.  However, if I ate chocolate chip cookies baked by many different people, I'd probably come across some that leave my taste buds feeling disappointed and maybe some that are so hard that they chip my tooth.  Eating both delicious cookies and yucky cookies would naturally make me analyze what goes into making my preferred cookie.  I'd probably start asking questions about ingredients, measurements, temperatures, and baking times.  Then I would hold the knowledge needed to bake some delicious chocolate chip cookies myself.

Writing is the same way.  My first introduction to great literature was in a high school English honors course.  I couldn't get enough of that good writing.  I took a bunch of literature and creative writing courses in college, literally rushing home so that I could read the evening's assignments.  A good poem or short story was like a delicious chocolate chip cookie to me.  I wrote, but I didn't write anything delicious.  I tasted good literature, but hadn't inquired about the ingredients just yet.

It wasn't until I started working as an editor on the campus literary arts journal that I had the opportunity to read unpublished work from students.  Some of that writing churned my stomach and I had to wonder how the authors even made it into the university.  After a while I began seeing similarities among all the bad submissions, and I understood why they didn't work.  I was able to compare the good writing in my world literature classes with the bad writing of improperly prepared writers, and see what one had that the other didn't.

Back then, most everything published was in print and had been run through a gauntlet of agents, editors and publishers.  It was difficult to fail with so much talent and knowledge backing one's collection of words.  Reading unpublished student writing was the best way to gain access to bad writing.  Today there is bad writing all over the Internet.  There is bad writing in some self-published ebooks, but not all of them.  Many self-published ebooks never got published via traditional means either because the agents and publishers believed there was no demand or interest in the subject, or because the author simply chose the fast track to publication.

The point is that today we have better access to both good writing and bad writing than ever before.  Take advantage of it.  Learn from it.  You'll become a better writer for it.

Going back to the handful of old, rotten paperbacks I purchased at the local library book sale, I did throw one of them in the trash without reading more than the first couple of chapters.  This decision did have to do with the headaches I was getting from holding rotten paper too close to my nose, but it also had to do with the fact that I couldn't follow the story.  I read the whole first chapter believing that the main characters were two little boys somewhere around 10 years of age.  Then upon reading the second chapter I discovered that one of the boys had pot-smoking roommates.  They were young adults, not children.  How hard would it have been for the author to clarify that in the first chapter?

Then the author brought so many new, indistinct characters into the second chapter that I couldn't follow who was saying what.  People were randomly wandering in and out of the scene interrupting the conversation for no good reason that was obvious to me.  It just made me feel as if someone were interrupting my reading, which was making my headache worse.  Also, the characters were trying to figure out something that the author already spelled out to me -- the reader, which felt like a waste of time.  Why would I want to sit through hundreds of pages of characters trying to solve a mystery that is obvious to me?   I tossed that novel in the trash with a thud of finality.

The next book I picked up was newer, so the yellow pages didn't reek as bad.  I've been having a hard time putting it down.  It flows well.  I'm immersed in the story.  At no point do I feel like shoving the author out of her own way.  I'm learning from it, just as I learned what not to do from the author whose book ended up in the dump.  Iris Johansen's "The Ugly Duckling" is a breath of fresh air, but I'm also thankful to the other author for drowning me in the mistakes she made that led to both my confusion and unintended education.

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