August 4, 2015

Can We Learn from Reading “Bad” Writing?

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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Stephanie Scott

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!)

Mary Kate

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: 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!

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

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!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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!


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.

Jim Ross
Jim Ross

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.


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…  — Read More »

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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…  — Read More »


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.


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 🙂

Anne BB
Anne BB

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!!!

Bella ardila
Bella ardila

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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