There are two ways to learn how to write: by reading and by writing. Both of them are equally important. All it takes to get experience writing is a pen and paper or a word processor and a laptop. As for reading, you read all the best books you can get your hands on. Isn’t that enough?
I don’t think so.
I think a flaw in the way we teach English in America, at least in terms of preparing students to write their own stories and novels, is that we have a bias toward good books. Think about it, what did you read and analyze in high school? Shakespeare? Moby Dick? Huckleberry Finn? Catcher in the Rye? Chances are, you read nothing but classics. Even if you had a progressive teacher who had you reading current books, I’ll bet they were still award winning and well-written.
There’s nothing wrong with reading good books. That’s how we as budding writers begin to develop our own voices and styles. We read them to see how they did what they did, so that we can one day write like them. From the good books we read come our aspirations and inspiration.
But that’s only half of the picture that we, as aspiring writers, need to be successful. Watching a master dance effortlessly through a mine field might take your breath away and inspire you, but it won’t do anything to show you where the mines are buried. Maybe one rare genius may be able to follow in their footsteps exactly and not blow herself up. But for the rest of us it can more helpful to watch someone else step on a mine so that know where it’s buried.
That’s where poorly written books come in. Notice I don’t call them bad, because I believe a book can be at once both good and poorly written. To me, a bad book is one that fails to meet its own expectations. Books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, despite being written with all the grammatical understanding of a gerbil, are, I would argue, good books. I certainly don’t enjoy reading them, but many, many people do. And that’s all those books want for themselves. They’re not meant to be literature, to withstand the test of time and be this generation’s Sound and the Fury. They’re meant to be the potato chips of the literary world, consumed quickly and without thought, and by anyone’s count they’ve certainly succeeded at this.
But they are still poorly written, earning their success in spite of their writing as opposed to because of it. Books like this can get away with being poorly written, but they don’t have to. And these authors all make a lot of the same mistakes.
So even though it can be painful, read them. Learn from their mistakes so you don’t make the same ones in your own writing. You may not enjoy yourself, but I think your writing will be better for the experience. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
What do you think? What are some of the most poorly written books you’ve ever read and did you learn anything about how not to write from them? I’ll share some of my own experiences later. I’m even thinking of making a podcast reading and critiquing Fifty Shades if that would be something anyone is interested in (I’m certainly not looking forward to the idea but I think it’s worth doing).