I try to hone my writing skills by reading a lot and observing how others writers put their words together. I do this quite regularly, to the point where I often have to reread a page because I spent so much time analyzing the structure that I didn’t pay attention to the actual meaning.
When one chooses literature, it is natural to gravitate to the great writers in history. Ones that we all hope to emulate and, perhaps, join the ranks of. We dip through Dickens’ characterization or untangle Faulkner’s impossibly long sentences, trying to fill our souls and pens with the joy of the best literature in the world.
But, in my opinion, it is just as important to read bad writers and bad literature, as it is to absorb the good stuff. The reason is simple: to see what not to do. It is good to have a reminder to not indulge in clichés, to see what an awkward sentence looks like, or to avoid using the same damn word over and over again (Word has a thesaurus function, probably one of the best new tools for aspiring writers).
Let me give you an example from a bad book, recently turned into a worse film, 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James. It is a book I eventually gave in and read after all of my students kept telling me it was “wonderful.” They and I obviously employ different definitions of the word.
“I line up the white ball and with a swift clean stroke, hit the center ball of the triangle square on with such force that a striped ball spins and plunges into the top right pocket. I’ve scattered the rest of the balls.”
Pardon me I think my eyes have melted. Here’s a fun little exercise, see if you can rewrite that passage in ten words or less and actually improve its clarity. It’s surprisingly easy.
“And from a very tiny, underused part of my brain—probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells—comes the thought: He's here to see you."
A tiny part of my brain rejoices that I’ve learned not to overfill my sentences with extraneous adjectives. The other part has shut down with the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of people scarfed this book down and loved it.
Still the passage above, and many like it have served to remind me about what I do not want my writing to be like. I don’t regret reading 50 Shades of Grey because by analyzing its awfulness, it has perversely helped to make me a better writer.
My advice is to study these writings. The bad plots churned out for a paycheck. The twisted sentences and flat characters. Analyze these missteps of literature, these forgettable tomes, these purple prose troubadours, and remind yourself how not to follow in their footsteps.