Can We Learn from Reading “Bad” Writing?

by Jami Gold on August 4, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Man with a disgusted look and text: Should We Read Bad Writing?

Much has been written about the “tsunami of crap” available now. Sometimes it seems like everyone and their brother thinks they can dash off a book.

Well, technically they can. We could publish our grocery list. But dashing off a book that’s good is an entirely different matter.

Hopefully, the Look Inside and free sample features of most vendors prevent us from making too many purchasing mistakes, but we’re likely to still end up with a dud every once in a while. What should we do when that happens?

On Facebook, Rebecca Lamoreaux, a friend of mine, asked:

“When you are reading or listening to a book, and it’s pretty terrible, do you stop reading – or keep reading as a great learning source?”

That’s a great question, and as the answers rolled in, I realized my thoughts on the matter have changed over the years. So I wanted to take a closer look at when we might want to slog through bad writing to try to learn what not to do—and when we wouldn’t.

The Case for a Learning Experience

Years ago, I wrote a post about why writers should volunteer to judge a writing contest. In that post, I said:

“We can learn from reading others’ work, as it’s much easier to see mistakes in prose other than our own…

Reading “bad” writing helps us figure out why passive voice is boring, or what makes a plot hole a plot hole, or any other of a hundred bad habits we can have.  And when we discover how to fix problems in others’ stories, we better understand how to fix them in ours.”

That’s all true. Even editors need editors because we’re often blind to the problems in our work. If we identify a problem in another story, we might recognize that we have that same problem in our own.

Also, in work other than our own, we can be more objective about why those problems would cause issues with readers. Coming across flat characters or repetition that causes us to roll our eyes might help us take similar feedback on our work more seriously. We can get first-hand knowledge of how slow pacing or dull descriptions make us want to skim or stop reading altogether.

We can especially learn from bad writing if we stop to think about how we’d fix it. Understanding how to fix problems is often key to knowing how to prevent them.

In some cases, we might be able to analyze why we find a poorly written story compelling regardless of its problems. Some of the biggest sellers in novels can be terrible, writing-wise, but something keeps people reading them anyway. Why?

The Case for Shutting the Book

The answers on Facebook to Rebecca’s question were almost unanimous. People pointed out that most of us don’t have time to read something we don’t like.

In addition, we’re also able to learn from well-written books, and we can analyze what an author did right. So why would we torture ourselves just to learn what not to do?

Or as another person worded it, echoing something I’ve said many times, if the author can’t be bothered to get it right, why should we bother to read it?

The few dissenting answers mentioned that they’d continue reading if the story was super compelling. That idea goes back to what I mentioned up above about how we can use bad writing to figure out how to create addictive prose.

My answer to Rebecca’s question yesterday pointed out how much my perspective has changed since that long-ago post:

“I’ve seen enough examples of ‘what not to do’ that I don’t need to read a whole book to understand the problem.”

Why did my perspective change? Does that mean I was wrong before?

Where Are We in Our Writing Journey?

I think a case can be made for both the Learning Experience and the Shutting the Book perspective. One isn’t “wrong,” and the other isn’t “right.”

Instead, I think the right answer for us depends on where we are in our writing journey.

When we first start off as writers, we face a huge learning curve. We’re trying to learn All. The. Things.

Point of view. Three dimensional characters. Tension. Conflict. Goals. Pacing. Narrative descriptions. Cause and effect. Turning points. Showing emotions. Deep point of view. Etc., etc.

That learning curve means that we might find a blog post about one issue and yet not understand how that affects the rest of the story. We might not understand…:

  • how raising the stakes affects characters’ motivations, which then affects their growth and character arc
  • how showing instead of telling affects readers and their connection to our characters
  • how we can use subplots to add themes or depth to our characters
  • how story structure affects pacing, stakes, and plot and character arcs
  • how the goals dictate the stakes (the consequences of failing to reach a goal)

Everything in storytelling is related. And when we’re learning one piece at a time (as we must, because there are too many moving parts to learn all at once), it’s impossible to see the big picture of how those pieces interrelate and affect one another.

  • Changing the motivation here affects the character arc there.
  • Changing this stake means that motivation is now too weak.
  • Changing the line of dialogue there affects the reader’s impression here.

When we’re first starting out, watching how the pieces and parts play out in a story that doesn’t work might make it easier for us to see how the gears fit together.

Sometimes it is easier to see behind the curtain of a story that doesn’t grab us because we’re not sucked inside. If a story works, we might struggle to gain enough distance to be able to see the moving parts.

However, at a certain point in our writing journey, we’re going to understand the basics. We know what it means to show instead of tell. We know how a character is supposed to grow and change over the course of a story.

In other words, once we know the basics and understand the relationships that drive storytelling, bad writing won’t hold lessons for us anymore because we’ve already learned about those points. We know what to do or what not to do, and more importantly, we know why.

So both perspectives are right. We can learn by studying bad writing, especially when we’re first starting off.

But we’ll eventually reach the point where we’ve learned the lesson. At that point, we no longer need to read the entire book to see how that bad writing affects the story as a whole. We get it already.

Maybe that shift tells us when we’ve crossed the line from a beginner-to-intermediate writer over to an intermediate-to-advanced writer. Once we consistently get the “been there, done that” feeling from trying to learn from bad writing, maybe that’s a good sign for our progress.

In short, maybe the last lesson we can take away from our study of bad writing is learning when we’ve graduated to the next level of being a writer. *smile*

Should bad writing lead to a learning experience, or should we close the book? Have you ever tried to learn from bad writing? What were you able to learn? Do you agree that the value of learning from bad writing might change as we progress in our writing journey? Do you have other thoughts for when studying bad writing would or wouldn’t be useful?

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28 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Stephanie Scott August 4, 2015 at 8:21 am

Thought-provoking post! It depends for me how bad the book is and “bad” in what way. Something I don’t like plus bad writing will get set aside, probably forever. If there is promise, I will skim or jump ahead.

For other books that aren’t so great but are either popular or have a lot of buzz, I might read the book differently to catch on to why people like it. I will be reading more critically, and more skimming and jumping ahead, to find standouts. Clearly if a book is popular, the author is doing *something* right–what is it? Non-writer readers or occasional readers may be able to overlook some issues and see the bigger picture. If there’s a satisfying ending, readers can sometimes forgive other nitpicks. Or if there’s one character they really relate to and can root for. Like watching bad reality TV, if there is one lone Kardashian we can identify as not a walking cosmetic enhancement ad, then we will “suffer” through multiple episodes. Maybe (I gave up hate-watching TV, but no judgement to those who do this!)

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Jami Gold August 4, 2015 at 9:09 am

Hi Stephanie,

Great point! Yes, no matter how “bad” we think a story is, if it’s a bestseller, we might slog through anyway to learn and participate in the buzz-conversation. And I love your comparison to reality TV! Sometimes we just want to watch a train-wreck of a situation. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Mary Kate August 4, 2015 at 9:00 am

I think you nailed it–it depends on where we are in our writing journey. When I was closer to a beginner, reading “bad” books was definitely beneficial–I made notes of all the things I would make sure never to d0 (actually wrote a post on this: http://wanderlustywriter.com/2014/08/11/on-show-and-tell/). But now that I *know* these rules, I really don’t want to waste my time on poor writing when there’s so much great writing out there.

But on the other side of the coin, it’s always, always good to know what’s selling in your genre–and sometimes what’s selling is a poorly-written book. And even if it’s poorly written, you could learn something from it. For example, there’s a certain YA series that I think is really poorly-written, but the tension throughout the story is spot-on–it makes you want to keep reading through the bad sentences. It’s important to remember that not all readers care about bad writing!

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Jami Gold August 4, 2015 at 9:12 am

Hi Mary Kate,

Exactly! And that’s a great point about how just because we-as-writers recognize bad writing, that doesn’t mean non-writers would. So as Stephanie pointed out above as well, if we’re faced with a bestseller (especially in our genre, as you mentioned), we might want to see how it manages to succeed with readers. Thanks for that insight! 🙂

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Lara Gallin August 4, 2015 at 9:06 am

I think it’s worthwhile to read the odd bit of bad writing here and there. I know if I read some stinkers I find myself editing them which I see as a good thing. In theory it should make it easier to apply that to my own work but I’m not finding that to be the case!

I once came across a forum where someone was writing something in installments. It wasn’t serious, he was just larking about and the writing was atrocious (as was the storyline). BUT, there was something about it, I don’t know what, that made it compelling reading despite those flaws. If only I knew what that something was so I could apply it to my own WIP!

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Jami Gold August 4, 2015 at 9:16 am

Hi Lara,

I still find it hard to edit myself because I struggle to see my words as not “written in stone.” However, once someone points out an issue, I’m better able to fix it, and often, I think that knowledge helps me avoid making some mistakes to begin with. 🙂

I know what you mean! It is the voice, the storytelling, the train-wreck aspect? LOL! I definitely still get sucked into bad writing sometimes, and I wish I knew the answer. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc August 4, 2015 at 10:38 am

I read to learn, but also for enjoyment. I’ve gotten to a point in my writing where I believe reading bad stories just isn’t worth the time. Not that I’m a professional or amazing by any standard, but I’d rather read, learn and enjoy than read…groan…and throw the book across the room 🙂

Thanks for you wisdom as always!
tamara

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Jami Gold August 4, 2015 at 11:09 am

Hi Tamara,

I understand. 🙂 The bad-writing stories I’m able to tough out are those that are still enjoyable in some way (like I mentioned above–too compelling to put down), but if it wasn’t enjoyable in any way? No thanks. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Kat August 4, 2015 at 11:54 am

Really interesting article as ever Jami!

I read good books to try to understand what is so good about them but at this (early) stage in my writing I have found that reading bad books is more useful because the problems are so obvious. A few years ago I wondered why some cheesy romance stories worked and why some were cringingly awful. So I read a load of both, editing in my mind, and comparing and contrasting.
Once I started writing again I found that that self-editor was ingrained. You can read as many how-to books and blogs as you like, but for certain learning-types I suspect feeling the problems will be more instructive than reading about them.

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Jami Gold August 4, 2015 at 12:23 pm

Hi Kat,

Great point! Yes, there are different learning styles, and for some hands-on learning styles, the lessons might be more understandable when “demonstrated” by bad writing.

I also love your point about how learning from bad writing can help our inner editor become ingrained. I think that definitely helped me. 🙂 Thanks for sharing those great insights!

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Jim Ross August 4, 2015 at 2:34 pm

Hi, Jami–

Bad writing–like good–is there to fill our reading desires, needs and wants. If nausea threatens our well-being as we read, we’ve merely to bookmark the place we’ll probably never return to, and move on. With the necessary open-mind of a writer, the experience will undoubtedly leave some positive learning residue. As you point out, we can typically sample offerings before buying digital books, but there will still be “duds.” The good news is…digitals take up no shelf space (albeit some minor disk storage,) don’t get dusty when we’re tired of them, and remain on tap when we decide to revisit, whatever our personal reasons. The trick is to keep reading, keep assimilating what makes our fiction work…regardless the source.

Thanks for your thought provoking posts.

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Jami Gold August 4, 2015 at 4:10 pm

Hi Jim,

Exactly–we can learn from any source if we have the right mindset. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Robin August 4, 2015 at 2:48 pm

Thanks for another great post, Jami! 🙂
To read or not to read… It depends on my mood – I’m Very willing to return a book to the library half finished (especially non-fiction), and move on to something (hopefully better) on my to read list. But there are times when reading something not so good has been worthwhile (if I am enjoying some aspect of it)

A couple of weeks ago I finished (with a lot of skimming) a historical western romance novel that was pretty clunky. It was badly in need of a final edit (in the last couple of chapters, character names were shifting from paragraph to paragraph). The historical research done by the author was front and center, sometimes taking over from the story for Pages at a time with deatils and dates included.
The backstory dumps were worse – the leading man sees his cousin walk in and sit down, and we got the cousin’s history from age 8 to present, along with why he wouldn’t make a nice husband for the mail order bride who was on the way. These things weren’t great – but then again, the minor characters did have believable motivations, they were three dimensional – I just found out about it in not the smoothest way. The historical detail might have been overdone, but there weren’t those moments where a historical character uses some inappropriately modern phrase (or object), throwing me out of the story… the historical town felt real. So there were pretty serious problems with the writing (at least for me) but I kept going.

I finished the book. Oh, I skimmed a lot, but I finished it.

Why? The chemistry in the scenes between the hero and the heroine tugged at my heart strings. The story was making me FEEL, and I couldn’t stop before the end, despite all the flaws.

So by the end, I felt like I had gotten 1) a great reminder why you need a copy edit at the end. Get the names right. 2) write the backstory, know the backstory, but don’t dump it on the table the first time a guy walks in the room. tiny bites. and most importantly 3) people will keep reading if you make them feel.

That was the value in reading the not so great writing. I also think there’s a lot of value to be found in reading Great writing.
So I followed up that week of e-book romance novels by starting For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Holy Cow, talk about Showing instead of telling. Wow. Serious skill going on between those covers. I think I’m going to need therapy to recover once I get to the end of it.)

Please no Hemingway spoilers here… I’m trying to let the story carry me through to the (probably horrific) ending without knowing how it will all turn out.

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Jami Gold August 4, 2015 at 4:39 pm

Hi Robin,

I’m a compulsive finisher, so I used to struggle with dropping a book, but the Look Inside feature allows me to drop a book before “officially” starting. 😉

Oh, love that insight about the story making you feel, and how that was enough. That probably accounts for many stories I read despite issues. That’s a great list of what you’ve learned–thanks for sharing! 🙂

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Robin August 5, 2015 at 7:27 am

🙂

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Serena Yung August 4, 2015 at 10:56 pm

Haha this reminds me of how William Faulkner recommends aspiring authors to read bad and really bad books as well as the good ones.

Hmm well personally I don’t like to call books “good” or “bad”, especially not the latter, because I can always see both strengths and weaknesses for all books. So I would learn from both a book’s strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the book could be extremely gripping, addictive, the tension and mystery are handled really well, the characters can be so likable that you (or at least I) develop character crushes on them; yet the book is so sparse in setting description that you feel a bit lost or that you’re standing in empty space. Or the characters could be super likable, yet you feel you don’t know them well, or feel that they could be developed more, or we could be told a bit about their backstory or motivations to make them more complex characters.

Another example could be a book that is fab in basically everything, in writing quality (in rhythm, word choice, conciseness, precision, flow, speed control, etc.), in having lovely and evocative setting descriptions, characters you fall in love with, good character development for at least the protagonist or some main characters, superb tension and pacing control, etc. (I know there are other criteria, but these are the criteria I personally focus on and care about most. :D) However, even in this virtually perfect book–virtually perfect in my opinion–you can always spot things that could be done better. E.g. the setting descriptions are really rich and lovely, and are in general engaging, yet there are SOME descriptions that felt somewhat slow and maybe even dull, so something could be done to enliven those parts. Or the main characters are pretty much well developed, yet one of the main characters lacks development compared to the other mains, so the author could reveal more about her to the readers to make her more “fleshed out”.

There could also be those books where all of the above are done very well, yet the writing isn’t great as the author’s first language is not English. So this would be one of those really compelling, even spellbinding books, where their only conspicuous flaw is the language.

A book somewhat opposite to the previous example, could be one that is quite superior in language, the tension and pacing is managed quite well (though not as well as the previous example), there is decent character development and setting descriptions, YET the story is not tremendously engaging. So to this particular reader, at least, the story is not captivating or addictive enough to make them feel like they can’t put down the book. They feel like they can stop reading any time, because they don’t find it very thrilling. As well, though the main characters are fairly developed and have good arcs, the reader is not very charmed by or interested in them, and may even dislike some of them. But the latter could be unfair, as it can be subjective what kinds of characters are very likable and what kinds are less likable.

The above are actual examples of Indie books I read, so I do believe in all books having both pros and cons, and I try to emulate their pros (if they are appropriate to my story) and avoid their cons.

Oh there’s also that traditionally published international bestseller novel I read sometime ago, that is very superior in depth of thinking and philosophical, socio-historical background, is really great at portraying a certain culture or way of life, really made the animals “come to life” on the page, and the writing is smooth and the word choices for the most part are good or appropriate. However, the human characters are mostly very undeveloped and uninteresting, and sometimes the long expositions on philosophical, sociohistorical thinking, though really fascinating and thought-provoking, can be quite dull and a drag too.

Anyway, it is either because I’ve been so fortunate that I have not yet met a terrible book, or because I have such rose tinted glasses that even a tiny bit of a positive can keep me reading till the end, lol. Actually the only “terrible” books I recall, are terrible only to me subjectively, because they were literary classics or Nobel prize winning books, lol. Yet even for what I would deem my least favorite book in the world (it was so depressingly antifeminist and misogynistic in its worldview that I just couldn’t bear it), I could still see ONE strength, which was the language. The language was really animated and quirky in a good way. It was so sad that that was the only thing I liked about it, but this one strength and that it was a literary classic, were what helped me to persevere till the end, sigh. Definitely donating this book away. =_=

So thanks to all those examples I read so far, I’ve become convinced that there are both clouds and silver linings in everything. Yet the cloud to silver linings ratio can be subjective, as evidenced in the Nobel prize winning or literary classic examples that I hated. 🙁

Oh sorry I can’t resist giving another example: There is this literary classic by a very highly regarded author. I guess I liked the book overall, but I thought that paragraph that lasted six pages was a bit much. T_T The book was a bit of a pain to read sometimes. Couldn’t they be more considerate to the readers and separate the paragraph more often than after 6 pages??? LOL

Thus yeah, it’s impossible for me to see a book as “all good” or “all bad” because I break them all down into strengths and weaknesses, so that I can only say things like “mostly good” or “mostly bad”. But I also have to keep in mind that what I think is “mostly good” might be “mostly bad” to my friend, or what I think is “mostly bad” could be “mostly good” to another friend. Judging the “quality” of a book is such a complex and multi-nuanced thing, yikes!

In the end, I would just want to read books that I personally like, whether they would be considered “good” or “bad” in other people’s eyes. This book could be “bad” to most people, yet if I enjoy it, then I’ll think highly of it. In contrast, this other book could be “amazing” to most people, yet I might be bored to tears by it, lol. Both these two cases have happened to me before, haha, unfortunately.

P.S. It’s very interesting that even what makes a page turner can be subjective! There are some books that I thought were superb, amazing page-turners, yet many other people found them slow and boring. 🙁 (How???) There are also some books that many found very engaging or compelling, yet I felt were not very engaging.

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Jami Gold August 5, 2015 at 7:33 am

Hi Serena,

Very true! We’re talking about “bad” writing here, and yet there are many ways to define bad writing (grammar, technique, storytelling, etc.). If a story with “bad” writing is doing something to keep our attention, obviously there’s some good writing mixed in there too. 🙂

Also, as you point out, sometimes a book can simply be “okay” in certain areas. Without the good sections, we wouldn’t be compelled to keep reading, yet nothing is “bad” per se. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of not layering enough of the good stuff in. Or as you said, not restraining the problematic stuff enough, like adding more paragraph breaks. LOL!

And I know what you mean about how every story can still be improved. I have a hard time enjoying many stories now because if I see even one way it could have been better, it affects my enjoyment. There’s a reason many writers get into reading slumps. 🙁

As for your question about the subjectivity of page-turners, I’d guess it’s because what appeals to us is so subjective. Voice alone could make a book compelling to some, but if that voice doesn’t appeal to another reader, there’s nothing good about that book. Or some readers get more into plot-focused books than others, so they don’t need the characters that interesting if the situation itself is interesting, while other readers need to feel connected to the characters to care about the plot that’s happening to them. 🙂 Great question, and thanks for the comment!

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Iola August 4, 2015 at 11:46 pm

I’m another one who has had to learn (the hard way) that it’s OK to not finish a book I’m not enjoying. I also find I’m getting less and less patient when reading Kindle samples – if I’m not hooked in the first couple of pages, I don’t bother.

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Jami Gold August 5, 2015 at 7:36 am

Hi Iola,

Yes! Less patient–that’s a good way to put it. 🙂 If I really liked the blurb, I might keep reading for a page or two more, just to see if it gets better, but in general the 3 strikes rule works well for judging the sample pages. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Daniela August 6, 2015 at 6:03 am

Great post Jami!

This is exactly why I became a book reviewer and started my book blog.

I wanted to read more, analyze what I was reading and learn from the “good, the bad and the ugly”. 🙂

When I don’t like something in a book I go back to my project and to check if I’m doing the same and correct it.

As I learn how to write better I share tips with my readers. So, I’ll be featuring this post in my next writing tip: The Dos and Don’ts of writing (draft title). Thanks again for the great posts. I’ve learned a lot on your blog 🙂

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Jami Gold August 6, 2015 at 6:42 am

Hi Daniela,

Very cool! I’m a big believer in turning things into a learning experience, and that blog approach sounds like a great method for turning everything into a positive. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by!

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Anne BB August 7, 2015 at 10:08 am

I swear you are my Fairy Godmother of Writing Wisdom. The day you posted this I was pondering this exact question. Your piece brought together the bits floating in my mind and presented a clear vision.

The day before, I had read the first few pages of a “free” book from Amazon. The writing needed an editor. The story was questionable. After three pages of reading with my fingers itching for a red pen, I asked myself if I should be spending my precious time reading it.

You helped me to understand my own answer.

Thanks so much for what you do!!!

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Jami Gold August 7, 2015 at 12:47 pm

Hi Anne,

You’re welcome! And LOL! at the “Fairy Godmother of Writing Wisdom” title. I love it! 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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Bella ardila August 18, 2015 at 7:18 am

I have seen the writing of Fifty Shades and it was horrible. I don’t get why people still buy that books. Maybe sometimes people love bad books especially romances.

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Jami Gold August 18, 2015 at 8:23 am

Hi Bella,

I don’t disagree about the quality of Fifty Shades. However, I disagree with your conclusion and think we could take away a different lesson. Let me explain… 😉

Interestingly, in the case of Fifty Shades, the initial readers who made the book famous were NOT romance readers. They were mommy bloggers who had never seen a romance and thus the whole idea of a sexy story was new and different to them–hence all the attention. (Nothing in those books would be seen as terribly gossip-worthy or shocking to a romance reader, certainly not enough to make the news. O.o )

In fact, many romance authors and readers never embraced those stories or took months to do so (when it became too big to ignore). Taken on their own, the books do not even qualify for the label of a romance.

Within the romance genre, a story must end with a “happily ever after” or a “happily for now” for the relationship, and it must end in an emotionally satisfying and optimistic tone. (Yes, these are rules, and woe to an author who breaks them but still tries to market their book as a romance. LOL!)

The first Fifty Shades book doesn’t qualify for any of that. Depending on a reader’s perception of emotional abuse, even the series as a whole might not qualify for “emotionally satisfying” or “optimistic.”

So the conclusion is faulty because the readership of an entire genre can’t be judged by single book. Especially not when neither the readers of said book nor the book itself fall into the genre.

Could an argument be made that some romance readers are more forgiving of bad writing? Perhaps. So what could we learn from that?

I think it’s enlightening to look at what the readers come for within the romance genre–a happy ending. If a book ends in an emotionally satisfying way, readers might forgive some sins of writing craft because they’re still getting what they came for. And “delivering on the promise of the premise” is a lesson we can apply no matter our genre. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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