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.
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?Pin It