What You Can Learn from the World’s Worst Writing

This article was written by Chris Ciolli.

We’ve all been there. That terrible free e-book you downloaded on a whim. Or worse still,  that awkwardly written paperback with a gripping blurb on the back that inspired you to take a $5 or $10 risk on an otherwise unknown author. There’s nothing quite so disappointing as a book that lets you down when you really need an armchair escape.

Because let’s face it. The onset of digital publishing aka, the “age of Amazon” has improved by leaps and bounds the variety and sheer quantity of reading materials easily available to us. Unfortunately, it hasn’t had the same positive effect on the quality of those reading materials. From blog posts, to e-books, there’s loads of nearly unreadable junk out there. The good news is that it may not be as worthless as we imagine: With a little creative thinking and a healthy dose of patience, a bad read doesn’t have to be a complete waste of time for writers.

Because while reading substandard writing can be terribly frustrating, disappointing and just plain boring, there is a shiny silver lining to this darkest of literary clouds: it can help us identify those nasty writers’ bugs that infect our own writing—be they dangling prepositions, banal conversations between unsympathetic characters, or a confusing and ineffective plot line.

Of course it takes more than just reading subpar books to become a better writer.  Analysis and reflection are a required part of the process. You can’t just stop at, “well, that was crap.” Beyond an initial negative reaction you have to dedicate some time and effort to what didn’t work in the book/article/blog post in question, and why.

Identifying What Doesn’t Work and Why

Is the dialogue hard to stomach and even harder to believe? Is the text chock-full of typos and grammatical errors that you simply can’t ignore? Are there huge jumps in the storyline? Is the protagonist one-dimensional? What pushes a book into your personal slush pile?

Some of my personal pet peeves are the following:

  • Excess typos (I’ll pardon occasionals but multiples on every page….I just can’t deal with it).
  • Persistent grammatical errors
  • Plot inconsistencies.
  • Poorly researched story premises.
  • Unnatural dialogue
  • Cardboard cutout characters, especially in the case of females, and villains.

Once you’ve identified what makes a book unreadable for you, it’s time to think about why, because this will help you come to terms to what’s most important to you in your reading, and how to apply it to your writing (because unhappy readers are no fun!). Knowing exactly the effect that these writing errors have on your reading experience will encourage you to be a careful writer and not make excuses for the flaws you (and others) identify in your own writing.

Do typos curb your enthusiasm just when you’re getting excited about ideas in an otherwise inspiring blog post? Does awkward dialogue keep you from falling in love with the strapping hero in that romance novel you’re reading? Think long and hard about how you want your readers to experience your writing before you talk yourself into ignoring the warning flags that you wouldn’t excuse in other writers’ work. Because here’s the deal:

Want to successfully communicate with an audience? Don’t irritate them or distract them from the ideas or story you’re trying to get across. While not all readers will be annoyed by the same things, you better believe that if certain mistakes drive you up the wall, they bug a good chunk of the other readers out there,too.

Just like identifying what works in good writing teaches writers what they should be doing, identifying what doesn’t in bad writing teaches writers what they shouldn’t be doing. So when you read something that makes you gag or gaffe, stop to think about why. Write it down, commit it to memory, and do your best not to repeat other writer’s mistakes. Your readers will thank you.

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A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

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8 Replies to “What You Can Learn from the World’s Worst Writing”

      1. Also, I just checked out your website, and saw that you’re originally from Lucknow. I really enjoyed my time there on my study-abroad program in India. Where is your book of folktales for sale?

  1. ” Unfortunately, it hasn’t had the same positive effect on the quality of those reading materials.”
    My friends have suggested I submit what I write as an e-book to get feedback, but this is exactly why I don’t want to. I feel quality is lost amongst such an ungoverned system – not to say I am against self-publishing, I just feel it is still growing and hasn’t found out who it is yet.

    I agree with your post, bad writing is just a good a place to learn what to not do as good writing is to learn what to do. I shall be keeping your points in mind as I go forward with my writing.

    1. Alice, self-publishing an e-book doesn’t have to be ungoverned. It just means you have to be more of a gatekeeper and perhaps hire a professional editing service before you publish something.

  2. Chris, Sorry I haven’t read this until today because you’re singing my song! As with other bad examples in life (my mother smoked for 50+ years and I saw what it did so I never touched a cig), the poorly written piece can teach us much. I’ve made some colossal mistakes that I’m sure have helped others, too. Please – hold your thanks. Realizing those mistakes is where the rubber hits the road and we can hunker down and improve, or go on our merry way annoying the reader. Don’t you just love choices?

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