Does reading bad writing make you a bad writer?
I remember an advisor from grad school wrinkling her nose and looking dismissive when asked this question. “How could it?” she said. “If you’re a good writer, you’re a good writer. Reading bad writing can’t make you a bad writer, unless you were a bad writer to start with.” Or something like that.
And for years I adopted this as one of my (many) mantras. A good writer writes good stuff! Reading bad writing don’t make writers bad!
Apparently, I’m a highly suggestible person, because if I’m reading a bad book (and I read plenty of bad books. I’m a book reviewer. There are a lot of bad books out there.) then I definitely tap out some pretty lame paragraphs of my own when that bad writing is freshest in my mind. I write awful, terrible sentences until I digest the antidote: a really good book.
Like most creative weirdnesses, I don’t know why this is so. My job is not to question. My job is to make use of insight earned through years of trial and error and error and error and to change my mantra. Good reading breeds good writing.
So, how do I handle this as a book reviewer who reads bad books as part of her bid for supplemental income? I read more, and I read faster, and I make sure to read more amazing books than not amazing books. And that’s actually really easy. Except, of course, when I manage to rent the entire last season of Downton Abbey and have to, well, turn my attention away from the written word in favor of the digitized spoken word.
But actually, maybe this counts. There are movies that stand out as having taught me how to be a better writer: Four Weddings and a Funeral (thanks to Doug Glover at VCFA); 500 Days of Summer; Sliding Doors; even the TV series New Girl with it’s phenomenal bar scene dialogue. And podcasts are great, too. Stories are stories, and if you work at it you can twist the spoken word around in a certain way so it looks like the written word and then you can figure out how it clicks together to make something pretty great.
So don’t read too much bad writing. There’s a lot of it out there to avoid, but luckily, there’s a lot of good writing, too. It’s like light matter and dark matter–they can’t exist without each other.
(Full disclosure: I’m not a scientists. I have no idea the roles of light and dark matter or their rules for existence. The simile might not work at all. Sorry.)