On Reading Bad Books To Become A Better Writer

I don’t know what happened to me.

I used to be able to devour books like a hungry, gasoline-fed fire. It wasn’t unheard of to finish a book in a matter of days, and never more than a month. But now, I can barely finish a book in a month if I’m lucky.

I know a lot of things keep me from reading as fast as I used to—TV is probably chief among them, as well as the fact that I seem to have a much shorter attention span than I did before, thanks in no small part to the Rise of the Devices, where I feel this idiotic need to constantly check my email and Facebook and Twitter. I used to be able to read for an hour or two straight with no problems. Now I read a few pages then start feeling distractions pulling at the corners of my brain. My ability to focus while reading has seemingly gone by the wayside.

As I’ve been working on strengthening my writing, I’ve put in a lot of work and I think that hard work is starting to pay off. Even though I still have a long way to go, I’m feeling a certain confidence in my writing that I didn’t have before and I think it shows. The thing is, for all the writing, editing, and studying I’ve done to improve, there’s one piece of advice I haven’t taken, and it’s always bothered me.

That advice is (paraphrasing): Read as much as you possibly can, even books you don’t like or that aren’t very good. You can learn just as much if not more from a bad book than you can from a good one.

Really?

I mean, it makes sense on a certain level. I suppose that carries over to other arenas as well, not just writing. But the thought of spending my valuable time reading a book I don’t like or isn’t very good seems, well…crazy.

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Now that’s not to say I won’t finish a book I don’t like by an author I do like. I’m about 50 pages into Bag of Bones by Stephen King, and even though I’m still waiting for something actually happen, I’ll be patient and I’m sure I’ll finish the book even if it doesn’t pick up. But reading a mediocre-to-bad book by an author I don’t even like?

inconceivable

 Reading a book is something I try to enjoy. I say try because unless what I’m reading has me absolutely engrossed, I’m still a little distracted, looking at word choice or use of punctuation, and not enjoying the book like I feel I should. I’m reading more like a writer than a reader. If I was trying to read a bad book I’d probably never finish it because I couldn’t keep myself interested. It is worth noting, however, that of the very small amount I read of one of the Twilight books, Stephanie Meyer managed to make sure I never use any form of the word incredulous.

One thing I have been doing, though, is slowly dipping my toe into the pool of online critique groups. I mentioned my Reddit ‘No Sleep’ experiment before, and that was fun, but you don’t get any actual feedback there. I did some more exploring and found the subreddit Shut Up and Write, which is a point-based peer critique system. As you review and critique the work of others you earn points that you cash in when you submit your own work for review.

So I guess I’m still improving my writing by reading stuff that isn’t necessarily top of the line, it’s just that instead of going ‘Ugh, this sucks,’ and chucking a book in the trash I’m giving some hopefully useful and constructive feedback that helps the other writer. It feels much more productive than reading a poorly written book.

Hopefully then end result is pretty much the same, because I really don’t want to read bad books. I really, really don’t, but I will if it’s that valuable to my writing. But you tell me—do you finish every book you start, even the crappy ones? What do you take away from them?

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13 thoughts on “On Reading Bad Books To Become A Better Writer

  1. I get very defensive almost, when I hear people criticize me for the lack of reading I do. They go back to the quote that Stephen King made that in order to be a good writer you have to read a lot, and I currently don’t. What they miss in that quote is the rest of what he said, which was that you will get to a point that if you read enough, you will decide you can do better. I think this is true of most authors. I read so much as a kid growing up, I would spend my summers in the library just reading non-stop. Now, the books being released are lacking that childhood awe I felt when I was an avid reader, and my problem is guilt. If I have time to be relaxing and reading, then I should probably be writing.
    I too, have a very hard time reading something I’m not completely engrossed in because it baffles me that these authors have publishing deals with their atrocious writing.

    • I know what you mean about free time. Sometimes, especially on weekends, I feel guilty if I’m reading or watching some lame show when I know I could be working on my writing. And I’m pretty sure I’m about to the point of doing better than some of the crap that’s out there. 🙂

  2. I’ve been finding myself overwhelmed by some of the finer creature comforts myself, and I have subsequently been making it a point to take a step back. It’s a lot like an addiction. We don’t know that it’s happening, we deny it when it does and it’s extremely difficult to return to the point we were before realizing how we got there.

    I personally have five mandatory hours of television that I watch each week, but with certain horror series and crime drama returning to the air, it’s been getting more and more difficult to manage time. This month in particular, with deadlines tightening their noose around my neck, I’m having to say to myself; “Just shut the damn thing off,” although I might as well be flipping a coin on that one.

    My work space has always been set up in the living room. With my current location, I can see every point on the first floor, albeit a couple of blind spots, which allows me to write while the kiddos are at play. Not ideal, as I prefer to listen to music while I write. Not to mention there are times when they are rambunctious and I opt to watch a show instead.

    I keep telling myself that things will change when my youngest is in school all day, (three more years), but I also know that I have to maintain my own discipline lest I be ruined when that day comes.

    I only made one New Year’s Resolution this year; “No more new television shows, and less of the ones I already watch!”

    Yeah…

    For now, I’m thankful that when I do sit down to write, I’m able to do so like a man inspired. I can crank the words out between 3k-11k in my book and various other projects, and at the end of the day I can at least feel like I’ve accomplished something. Or, at least until I take the two steps back which are necessary for edits. ;p

    With reading books, I also share the same plight.

    I was a reader before I became a writer. If I wasn’t adding to my own library, I was AT the library. However, with all of my free time wrapped up in family, writing, work and the various responsibilities that come with each, I seldom have time for a good read.

    This isn’t to say that I don’t read anymore. I recently reviewed a book by Tad Pritchett that centered on soldiers and their memories about the Battle of the Bulge. I’m ashamed to say that it took me three months to finish reading it when in the past I could have had it done in a couple of days.

    I’ve also taken to reading free ebooks, either by authors I know through social media or by random searches. So far I’ve only read a handful, but my experience has been on both ends of the spectrum. I’ve read a really good story, a real stinker and a few so-so’s in between. Most of the issues I’ve found were grammatical, but I’ve also come across a couple of stories that were so loosely written that I couldn’t follow them while reading and I didn’t know what they were about when I was finished.

    I know I’m not perfect, by any means, which is why I’m pulling myself back into reading. My goal is to read a good story/book that I know, to help improve my style of writing, and one I don’t know, to help me improve my editing skills. Like you, I don’t really care to read a bad book. But, if it helps me by giving me an example to strive against, I’m all for it. Even if I’d rather be pulling a tooth with a pair of tweezers…

  3. Jobe,

    Life is short. Why read bad books? Or see bad movies? Or play video games that suck?

    I have read bad stuff, but never purposefully. If I find out it’s bad in the first page or two I turn to something else. To put it another way, I like to read good stuff and try to figure out how to imitate it rather than read bad stuff and try to figure out what I should avoid.

    As for electronic distractions, I hear you. I even find it harder to focus on longer books. But I still do it. That being said, I’m trying to balance my love of long novels wiith the market need for short stories and flash fiction. It ain’t easy.

    • I forced myself through about half of a book a couple of months ago before giving up and it wasn’t exactly bad, but just boring. That’s when I said ‘screw it, no more!’

  4. That “incredulous” thing? That happened to me, except the book was Kushiel’s Dart and the word was “murmur.” Loved the book, but I will NEVER use that word if I can avoid it. Every other paragraph, I swear…

    I’m totally with you on not wanting to waste time reading books I don’t enjoy. Yes, it can be helpful to try to understand why we don’t like them (passive voice, excessive adverb use, alpha males, and unrealistic sex scenes are all pet peeves of mine), but once you know to avoid that, I don’t see the point of forcing yourself to finish a terrible book when there are so many great ones out there, waiting for us to read them.

  5. I agree with Kate. I’ll finish a mediocre book by skimming a lot, but bad books just go back to the library unread after the first few pages. I, too, end up getting sidetracked by television, internet and computer games. I used to be able to focus! Great post, as always.

    • I remember once upon a time, I could block out distractions and just read. I think it’s coming back to me a little bit, but not like before. I can hardly even write with music on, which I used to love.

  6. For me the major factor was getting a full time job; when I was still studying I had so much time through the day to read or do exercise. Now that weekday “me time” is basically from 7pm to midnight I’ve found myself spending a lot less time doing either of those things. The book I’m on right now I’ve been reading for about 5 months… it’s a sorry state of affairs, I know.
    By the way, if you decide to change your mind and read some appalling literature, I’d recommend this list of absolute sex scene shockers! Be warned though, it will result in some serious cringing.
    http://www.theguardian.com/books/poll/2013/dec/03/bad-sex-awards-extracts-poll

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