5 Ways Reading Bad Books Can Improve Your Writing

When I was a pre-teen, I read Jane Eyre. At the time, I was visiting family in Freeport, Illinois for the holidays. On this particular trip, I had been assigned to sleep in the attic bedroom at grandma’s—absolutely the best place in the whole world to stay up late and read. Sometimes I would read until I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, waking up to find I had been drooling on page 118 for several hours.

What? Go ahead, pretend like that stuff doesn’t happen to you.

Anyway, I’m going somewhere with this. Oh yes! I loved Jane Eyre, as I loved all books back then. It wasn’t until I was 31 (that’s how old I am now, in case you were wondering) that I had my first experience with a bad book.

Let me explain to you what I mean by “bad book” though. You see, even as a child I read books I didn’t like and books I didn’t agree with and books I considered boring. However, I couldn’t really blame the book. It was just the old “it’s not you, it’s me” deal. Despite how I behave on this blog, I am reasonable enough to concede that a book doesn’t have to make my list of favorites to have merit.

That said, in the last few months I’ve had the misfortune of reading some truly bad books. Not just sort of bad, but miserably bad books.

Read through the handful of reviews I’ve posted here on Suess’s Pieces, and you’ll get some idea of what I mean. A couple of those books were good, a couple were fair, and a couple were so bad I felt like the author had personally insulted my intelligence. As I read them, bewildered, I would think to myself, So that’s why he had to pay someone to print this.

But I’m not here to rehash that whole vanity press thing. I said my piece. I am here to tell you that—surprise!—hastily written, poorly edited self-published works do have value for writers. I’ve learned so much, in fact, from my experiences with bad books that I’m ready to write my high school English teacher and beg her to make bad books part of next year’s curriculum.

5 Reasons You Should Read a Bad Book

Bad books teach humility. Publishing a book is exciting, and in your haste to see your work in print, you, too, might somehow convince yourself that all those traditional publishers have been rejecting your work simply because they don’t like your socks or your middle name. (By the way? If you believe that, there is a good chance you’re delusional.) Think “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Bad books are like miniature, one-way workshops. Read the whole book cover to cover and take notes. Every time you say to yourself, “Wha-what?” or “Who is this character again?” think about how one might go about fixing that problem through revision. Learning through critique is its own reward, but the bonus here is that you can be absolutely brutal with the notes you make in the margins–the author will never know. So, no tears. Yay!

Bad books are good for the writer’s ego. No, not the author’s ego–yours. How many times have you read your favorite book and then trashed all or most of your WIP before you ever got to that whole revision part? I’m pretty sure you won’t go to hell for finding some small speck of confidence in someone else’s failure. You probably shouldn’t mention how the author helped you in your acknowledgments though. Just sayin’.

Bad books make great coasters. Also, my dog Taubensee likes to chew on my books occasionally when the separation anxiety kicks in. Now, instead of him eating my autographed treasures, I can just leave a few bad books out for him. Yeah, I know that sounds mean. Someone out there is going to say, “But, Emily, those authors poured their whole hearts into those books, laboring for eons to get it just right.” Um, yeah. Seriously doubt it. And if it is true, someone’s got to tell these people they need to try the tuba or something.

Bad books jolt you back into reader mode. Finally, reading a bad book reminds you what it’s like to be a reader again. It’s like someone grabbing your shoulders and shaking you while shouting, “See how annoying all those mistakes are? And you were going to self-publish without editing. You asshole!” Now tell me. Who doesn’t benefit from a little perspective?

Interesting side note: I remember hearing Bobby Knight give a speech some time ago. (Or maybe I dreamed it, I can’t seem to find any reference to it now.) He said that his grandmother once told him, “Bobby, everyone has a purpose in life. Yours is to teach others how not to be.” I’ve always loved that little quip, but it doesn’t only apply to a chair-throwing Bobby Knight. It also applies to any author who has the passion to write but lacks the patience to ensure she does it well.

Anyway, that’s all.  If you’d like me to recommend some horrible books, get in touch.

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