Editor’s Corner: Bad Writing for Good Writers

Johnny Damm

Editor’s note: our Murdering Your Darlings series is on break this issue, but in its place, we offer the inaugural installment of a new series of craft-related essays, Bad Writing for Good Writers. Enjoy!


Bad Writing for Good Writers

If a writer tells you that reading isn’t an essential component of writing, spit in his face and run swiftly away. Do not, under any situation, read his work. I don’t need to have met this man, this huckster and charlatan, to tell you that his writing is dreadful and that he is as poor an artist as he is, indeed, a human being.

The integral relationship between reading and writing is absolutely uncontroversial. Ron Silliman, the language poet, describes it this way in his poem “Ketjack 2: Caravan of Effect”: “For me, reading is only slightly removed writing—a good text will send me to my notebook again and again … —and the two together form the deepest mode of introspection.” This concept, of writing and reading being irrevocably linked and leading to a writer’s self-examination, is crucial to any understanding of the writing life. I do, however, wish to quibble slightly with Silliman’s characterization of “a good text” as best serving this function. What we are talking about, after all, is the necessity for writers to be active and analytical readers—examining the craft of every sentence and passage, truly interacting with a text. Here’s the funny thing about that: a good text is often harder to actively engage with than a bad one.

The British novelist Sarah Waters puts it this way, “Read like mad. But try to do it analytically—which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you’ll be of its devices.” A poorly written novel, on the other hand, positively invites analysis and interaction with the text. Let me offer a quick example:

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.

Okay, let’s talk about what we see here. What do you notice about these sentences?

I recently shared this passage (and the ones following) on a panel at the Other Words conference, and conference attendees spotted at least a half-dozen potential errors. The obvious ones, however, are the bizarre pairing of “chillingly close” with “fifteen feet away” and describing a “silhouette” with colors.

Think about what just happened here. You read this passage from a phenomenally successful blockbuster novel, and—I’m hoping, at least—immediately got a sense that there was something wrong with it. So, you paused and, here’s the crucial factor, actively thought about it. That’s interaction, that’s analysis, and it wasn’t enacted despite the text being so bad, but because the text is so bad. This is, let’s be clear, the peculiar power that bad writing can have for good writers. Edward Albee describes this in a slightly different fashion, as quoted in Advice to Writers:

If you are going to learn from other writers don’t only read the great ones, because if you do that you’ll get so filled with despair and the fear that you’ll never be able to do anywhere near as well as they did that you’ll stop writing. I recommend that you read a lot of bad stuff, too. It’s very encouraging. “Hey, I can do so much better than this.” Read the greatest stuff but read the stuff that isn’t so great, too. Great stuff is very discouraging.

On that note, let’s look at another example, from the opening chapter of the novel House of Destiny:

Hailey, Idaho

January 1936

Sixteen-year-old Jude Abavas was ready! Ready to kick butt! His body tingled with anticipation. How he wanted to be victorious! And if, in the process, he beat John, his twin— Well, that would just be icing on his cake.

“Jude,” Tom McCruger called. “Did ya hear the news?”

“What news?” Jude asked, harnessing one of Mr. Wangler’s horses. “You’re late!”

“Sorry. But listen!” Some fancy dude’s in Ketchum, wantin’ to build a swell hotel. Wouldn’t that be great?”

“Well, yeah, guess so, but now you’d better get your rig set up if you want to be my partner. John is hooked up with Clyde Warhas and they’ll be tough. Damn, it’s colder than a cow’s tit!”

House of Destiny was written by the great actress Janet Leigh (yes, that Janet Leigh), and let me just tell you, I love this book. It is gloriously, jaw-droppingly dreadful. And in its dreadfulness, it is simply impossible to read passively—you stop every few moments to wonder just what the hell Janet Leigh must have thought she was doing—and for this reason, offers a multitude of lessons. Such as?

At the very least, it’s impossible to miss Leigh’s egregious use of the exclamation point, questionable fidelity to historical period, and utter ineptitude with dialogue. As a side note, may I suggest to creative writing teachers, particularly at the intro level, the value of sharing a passage of this (lack of) quality with your students?

I’m not sure if there are connoisseurs of bad novels like there are connoisseurs of bad movies, but if there are, House of Destiny would have to rank on the best worst novels list. This is the Trolls 2 of novels. That being said, the drawback to writing this bad is that it’s almost too easy to dissect. While you are engaged in active reading, you’re also not working particularly hard to find its faults, and for the experienced writer, the lessons might be a bit too basic to remain useful. So let’s look at something a bit more subtle for our final example:

Sutherland dismounted. He walked over to the packhorse which was carrying the long metal tube which held his osage hunting bow. He pulled out the bow and removed the metal case holding the scope. He screwed the scope to the top of the contoured grip, then stepped between the bow and the string with his right foot, placing the lower end over the left arch. He reached behind and grasped the upper end with his right hand, pushed with the right hand toward the left, and slipped the loop over the end with the left-hand fingers.

This is from Jackson Cain’s Savage Blood, a novel which manages the rare feat of being simultaneously violent, pornographic, and utterly boring. As you see, I did not choose one of the juicy parts to share. This passage lacks the surface level incompetence of Leigh or Brown, and honestly, if you were reading this book, odds are pretty good that you might glaze right over the writing here. But when you read as a writer, it’s essential that you stop yourself. Anytime you hit a passage that does absolutely nothing for you—basically, it ceases to be a scene and instead just becomes words on the page—you should pause and ask why.

Appropriately enough, this passage offers an example of a writer who appears to have forgotten about his reader all together in his rush to offer every detail of an action. That, of course, might be the greatest lesson of all. The fact of writing being a solitary endeavor can mask its essence as a truly complex interplay between writer and reader. As writers, we must learn to distance ourselves from our work, to back away and view our writing from a stranger’s eyes and, in the process, to create and inhabit our imagined readers. At every stage of composition, certainly before anyone else has seen the work, we must strive to imagine how a reader would read it. This isn’t a particularly conscious activity, but our imagined readers must remain sitting beside us as we compose our work.

Not surprisingly, what’s the only effective training for creating and maintaining your imagined reader? Being a reader yourself, even—or especially—if what you’re reading is terrible.

About the Work

Johnny Damm

Johnny Damm is the editor-in-chief of A Bad Penny Review.

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