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Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Appreciate Bad Writing

The managing editor couldn't have been any nastier. "We've had a bomb threat," he said in an email to the entire newsroom of about a hundred reporters, editors and photographers. "If you feel the need to leave, please inform your supervisor and your pay will be docked accordingly."

That this incident — which is true — occurred 25 years ago, doesn't make it any less outrageous. (The next sound was the bleep of many sets of fingers hitting the "print" button so they could submit the email to the government office responsible for worker safety. What else did the editor expect a group of reporters to do?) 

I couldn't believe that my company was prepared to be so scornful of its employees. But, then again, that was the kind of dysfunctional management in which the newspaper I worked for specialized.

The only thing that kept me at the job was that I loved editing and couldn't imagine having to do something else for a living. I was also lucky enough to have the support of a management consultant who worked against considerable odds to make things better. I learned a lot from Ken and perhaps one of his most useful lessons was that people can learn just as much from a really bad boss as an incredibly good one.

So, even while I loathed my bosses, I delighted in the apparent contradiction of Ken's advice. But think about it. It's true! You can learn from the horrible just as much as you learn from the good. And this applies to more than just management. I think it also relates to reading. 

Right now I'm reading a really bad book. (I won't share the name so as not to embarrass the author. Or, possibly, myself, for having selected such an atrocious work.) In my defense, I can tell you I'd read an earlier book by the same author and while it clearly had some flaws, it also displayed many redeeming features.

The current one, however, has nothing to recommend it. A day ago, I felt like picking it up by the scruff of its neck and hurling it across the room. So why did I persist in reading? (Especially when I always tell people they should give up on books they don't like. Life is too short to read books you really hate.) But here's the truth: Yesterday, I remembered Ken's management principle and took a deep breath. Even bad books have some lessons to teach us. Here's what I think they are:

Bad writing makes us more conscious of the potential landmines facing every writer. Many people think of writing as hard but aren't certain exactly what makes it so. And reading good writing isn't always revealing. In fact, good writers — like good figure skaters and good actors and good managers — make the painfully difficult look breathtakingly easy. But when you watch someone who is bad at a job, you get a better sense of exactly the kinds of things you need to do better. In the novel I'm reading right now, I'm learning about the difficulty of conveying day-to-day activity. Good writers make just about every sentence meaningful. Bad ones waste effort on recording every cup of tea their characters swallow.

Bad writing highlights the kinds of mistakes we don't want to make. It's one thing to know we shouldn't overuse adjectives. It's another to read a plethora of sentences like this one: "The wearily handsome, nervous, stubble-chinned man slowly and carefully got out of bed when he heard the soft, mysterious sound of footsteps in his apartment." (Thank goodness, this wasn't from the book I read; I found it on the Internet as a sample of really bad writing.) The horror of having to read such dreck yourself is so much more instructive than simply learning a guideline, don't you think? 

Finally, bad writing is a reminder that good work always requires effort. Few worthwhile things in life come for free. You don't get in shape by lying on the couch watching TV and you don't become good at playing the piano by listening to DVDs. Nor do you become a good writer simply by typing.

Just as the cold and rain of winter help us better value the warmth of summer, so, too, a little bad writing helps us better appreciate the truly good.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 12th 2013, 8:49 AM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
I equally appreciate the oppressive heat of summer and bitter cold of winter. Both can offer opportunity to learn and to be stimulated. Thank you for an interesting view. I enjoyed the thought process it invoked. As a result, I generally agree with you.
Tuesday March 12th 2013, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Jeffery A.
I've many times told students that a poor role model can be as valuable as a good one. Don't know that I'd have the wherewithal to stay with horrific management, though!
Tuesday March 12th 2013, 12:42 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I agree enthusiastically (and that is an odd phrase itself). Bad writing teaches a writer not to imitate it because the *wince* factor is a sort of negative reinforcement. Howsomever . . .

I've had times when I've gotten mired in a badly written book in a stubborn effort to find out just what the writer was trying to accomplish, and there is a danger in that. After a while I have become inured to the poor plotting and poor word choices and find an involuntary imitation starting.

The only cure is a dive into something purely excellent to clean out the mind!
Tuesday March 12th 2013, 3:02 PM
Comment by: Mary T. (Clewiston, FL)
Stephen King talks about the same thing in his book-- On Writing. There is much to be learned from reading bad books. He also said that bad writing can serve as inspiration and convince an aspiring writer that s/he can do better that that already published author did!
Wednesday March 13th 2013, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Craig J.
I appreciate your essay:-) Seriously, thank you for a write-up which validates something previously noticed and encourages me to pursue a policy of paying attention to the specifics of poor writing as a conscious policy.
Wednesday March 13th 2013, 8:46 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for all of the feedback. I agree with you Roberta, that there is also a danger in continuing to read too much bad writing. Books -- because of their length -- are a special risk because they can expose you to bad writing for such a long time. I also agree with your suggested cure: reading some excellent writing. I like turning to E.B. White (Trumpet of the Swan is one of my favourite remedies) when I'm feeling mired in muck!
Thursday March 14th 2013, 3:47 AM
Comment by: Monisha G. (Easton, PA)
Lovely essay, so many valid points. It always seems brightest after tredging through the darkest of nights. As contrast is what makes this world interesting, and what makes us discover our preferences which point the way to our best, our highest - and deepest - goals, your focus was a worthy and much appreciated one. P.S...What IS it, in your opinion, that makes writing "so hard?" I figure it's a win-win for me if you answer..either (1) You answer with something that resonates and I relate to, or, (2) You answer and I take your earlier cue to focus on contrast and go with the exact opposite of what you say. [Is it better to "haha" or to "lol" btw??] Thanks:)
Thursday March 14th 2013, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I think writing is hard for two main reasons:

1) Many schools don't teach teach the PROCESS.They correct the product but they don't teach the process. Students have to figure it out for themselves.

2) Because of the focus on the product, many of us persist in editing WHILE we write. This is a hard habit to break (it took me more than a year) but once you overcome it, writing becomes a whole lot easier. Do you know of anyone who has "speaker's block"? Of course not! Writing is simply speaking on paper.

Hope this helps, Monisha!

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