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Learning to write from bad writing

When I was at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference several years ago, I heard a couple of community college English teachers lamenting the effects of reading bad writing on their creative writing. They counseled me against teaching at that level. Right now I’m reading an awful book. Just awful. It’s a modeling memoir, and I’m reading it because I want to know what’s out there, and I want to be able to respond when an agent says, “Oh, there’s this other modeling memoir that just came out.” I’ve bought a few of these over the past several years and most of them I couldn’t stomach. I would read a chapter and then throw it away- literarally throw it away because I wanted it off my bookshelf and out of my house. I feel like I’m eating potato chips all day when I read stuff like that, and I hide it when I’m on BART because I don’t want people to think I actually LIKE reading stuff like this. (And if you’re thinking, “But wait. Didn’t you WRITE a modeling memoir? Yes, but I like to think that mine is more of a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the fashion industry and not modeling-centric.) But this time I’m sticking with it (and hoping it doesn’t have a negative effect on my writing) because I’m learning some lessons:

1) I’m learning the value of stating what seems obvious. This writer defines basic modeling terms and explains the details of daily modeling events that I think people really want to know. The writing isn’t good, but the informative details are. I’ll add more of those to my book.

2) I’m reminded on every page of what NOT to do in a book – pat character descriptions, meta-moments when she addresses the reader as “you,” and personal traits that make me want to smack her.

3) I’m reminded what traits make a character likable, make you want to root for her, and follow her for 300 pages: a strong will, strong convictions, a healthy self-esteem, and good moral judgment.

4) I’m reminded that trash like this gets published every day, so I shouldn’t give up anytime soon.

7 comments to Learning to write from bad writing

  • Yeah, I actually think you can learn a lot from bad writing — but I wouldn't seek it out in order to learn from it, you know? (Because you can learn more from good writing than bad.) But it's one way to not feel so bad about reading (or in your case, having to read, in order to stay informed) a bad book.

    I read a couple bad ones myself this weekend, but it only further motivates me to write a good one. And yeah, your reason #4? That's always a HUGE booster for me. 😛

  • I definitely don't want to read more books like this than I have to, but I am glad I forced myself to read this one. It taught me some valuable lessons. And now I am VERY excited to read An Education, of which I have very high expectations!

  • Meghan–Thanks for sharing this. I think your pointers are right on target. I am including this post as part of my Friday Link Love post.

    Great work. Thanks!

  • Thanks for the mention, Jon Paul. I will check out your links!

  • Great point. I always find good writing makes me want to go and write – but bad writing does too! It makes me go back to my own work and examine it more closely – and also prods me to make better use of my material.

  • Now that I'm tryign to go pro with my writing, I try to finish whatever I start reading. I don't think bad writing will make your writing worse. But it's so much easier to see what's wrong than to see what's right. I think if I make a long enough list of wrong things and avoid them, then there will be little room for error!

  • Dirtywhitecandy and Claire – I find that the page turners teach me lessons about plot and story arc, but I decided a couple of years ago that I'm no longer going to read books that I don't like (the one I read last week was an exception since it was for research). I've decided I'm okay now with putting a book down halfway through if I'm really bored, rather than forcing myself to finish it. Life is too short 🙂