Back when I was a stunt performer, my regular auto mechanic came to a show. After, he said, “I just don’t know how you can figure out which volunteer to bring on stage! How do you know they aren’t going to hurt you or act like a jerk and ruin the show?”
I said, “Bob, how do you know my catalytic converter is the problem without even jacking up my car to look underneath?”
Bob had a lifetime’s wealth of automotive knowledge that let him listen to the car and my description of the problem and figure out what was wrong. I was able to scan a crowd and determine who was actively engaged in the show (leaning forward, laughing, arms uncrossed), who wasn’t going to be a jerk (dad-age or older, here with family and not a gang of male friends), and who was going to play along nicely (already following instructions like ‘everyone say hello!’).
I learned these ways to look at people by picking bad people. I picked drunks who wouldn’t follow directions, smart-asses who tried to steal the show, someone from a religion that did not allow them to shake my hand. Public embarrassment, low tips, and getting dropped on a bed of nails were the immediate, specific feedback I needed to learn to pick audience members who would participate joyfully and let me make them a hero who deserved a round of applause.
As writers, we rarely get that kind of specific and immediate feedback. Form rejections don’t tell us anything beyond “this piece wasn’t right for this journal at this time.” How are we supposed to learn what’s not working in our writing, and make it better, fast?
By reading bad writing.
Overwrought memoirs. Jargon-filled science fiction. Purple-eyed, flowing-haired, has-all-the-powers fantasy. And by reading beginning writing. Early efforts from writers still a little less-skilled than we are. Novels self-published on Amazon by authors whose craft is catching up to their ambition.
Spotting problems in less-sophisticated writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like walking up to a broken car and immediately seeing a flat tire, instead of having to pop the hood and run diagnostics. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our own work and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.
To make reading bad writing a truly useful experience, approach it like an assignment. Read a chapter (or an essay, or a story) and first identify what the author is trying to do.
This chapter introduces the family members and shows each person’s job, their place in the family hierarchy, and how they relate to the narrator.
Pick out anything that is actually working, just as you would if you were sharing a workshop with this author.
I can clearly see the mom and dad’s physical appearance. The sister is likeable and I’d want to spend more time with her. The brother is shown as a bad guy from his interaction with the narrator.
Identify what’s not working. But unlike the reading-for-fun stage where you’d simply say “Ugh!” and chuck the book aside, get specific about why it’s not working.
Huh, if I skim ahead, this all seems like backstory to about page 50. Maybe the hiking trip should be at the beginning? Before that they’re all just hanging out. If we need to know who they are, the two sentences on page 5 are enough about the sister, the incident with the puppy shows us the parents, and maybe just the brother shoving the narrator?
These sentences feel really long and clunky. Oh, look, they all have three or more prepositional phrases…
I’m counting, and there are 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.
Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.
When you know what specifically is wrong, try rewriting a paragraph or two as if you were this author’s editor. (Do not under any circumstances communicate to the writer that you’re doing this. That’s not a favor unless it’s been requested, and unasked-for critique is insulting.) See if you can carry out their original intent, but in better words.
Finally, return to your own writing. Pick one of the problems you saw in the writing you critiqued, and look for that problem in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Is there a word or sentence pattern that sticks out?
Yes, we can absolutely learn good writing from reading good writing. But that often takes a teacher or group to identify the subtleties of craft together. If you’re working alone, reading bad writing helps you learn to spot problems and fix them. As your eye for craft develops, you’ll get better at seeing issues and knowing how to fix them when you read better writing. You’ll notice the one bad sentence in an award-winning book, or a famous author’s overused paragraph structure. You’ll understand how a very popular book’s powerful story is pulling readers through a saggy, under-plotted middle. And you’ll be able to apply these fixes to your own work as your writing improves.
Best of all, while you’re practicing, you don’t have to change a flat tire. Or get dropped on a bed of nails.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book is forthcoming from Woodhall Press in March 2021. Join her mailing list for occasional writing tips, adventures and inspiration: sign up here!