• October 1, 2014

Should We Study Bad Writing?

Careers Writing

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

It happens once a year or so. A student will suggest that we study something that is badly written. "I know," she’ll say, "Let’s read Twilight!" While I recognize this as a ploy, a way to get credit for a book they want to read—or have already read—for fun, I think something more interesting is also going on. When students recommend we read Fifty Shades of Grey for class, I suspect it’s because when they’re in school, they don’t get to read a lot for pleasure. They read mostly what we tell them to read and even when they enjoy the work, it’s still, for them, work.

I don’t think students have a real interest in studying bad writing as a way to get better. They know exactly what bad writing looks like and they’re good at identifying it, especially in the work of their peers.

Creative-writing students get easily frustrated with their own work, and reading only other people’s excellent prose can make them want to give up writing. In classes, I often hear them lament, "Why even bother? I’ll never be able to write that well." Keep trying, is what I usually say. Then I’ll admit that sometimes, when I read Joan Didion’s sentences, or Susan Orlean’s leads, or John McPhee’s descriptions of people and things, I am consumed with equal parts admiration and self-hatred. Or maybe not equal parts.

Recently, a nonacademic friend mentioned he had just put down a book of serious history published by a prestigious university press because the writing was so shoddy. He asked if I ever assigned badly written books so my students could study them. I said absolutely not.

Then I thought about it for a while.

As anyone who’s had to grade more than a few papers knows, imbibing pages of run-on sentences and tortured syntax can make being run over by a dump truck appealing. Reading bad writing is painful. Why would anyone sign up to study that?

Good stylists teach you things that you didn’t know you needed to know. Many of the exercises that we do in creative-writing courses involve imitation. My students and I look for moves and tricks that excellent stylists use, and then we struggle to make those techniques our own. We read both to understand what writers are saying and how they say it. How do they make us feel something? How do they keep us with them, and interested? How are the sentences structured? How do they create tension and immediacy?

When I’ve had students read something superb and then substitute their own words into a template that we’ve taken from that author, they produce writing of their own that surprises them. It’s a way to practice trying on different voices, a karaoke of writing styles. It won’t suffice in the long run—they’ll have to find their own tone and pitch—but it helps them see what’s possible and to break out of their own ruts.

When you’re a developing academic, much of what you read is not—if we’re being honest—gracefully written. It may be theoretically deep, richly researched, or pathbreaking correct. Academics learn to mine for content; style can seem an afterthought at best. In fact, many graduate students do the equivalent of reading Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey: Just as they skim over horrid prose to get to the plot twists or souped-up sex scenes in a bad novel, students ignore clunky sentences in search of new ideas and provocative arguments in an academic book.

And then, without much thought or intention, they imitate. They pick up tics and bad habits of mind like a virus they don’t know they are carrying. No one ever stops—no one ever has the time or energy—to talk about what makes one academic work more enjoyable to read than another. Graduate students buy into the idea that if they’re struggling with a text, the problem is with them, not with the author. And since most bad academic writing is not wrong in its grammar or construction, it’s hard to find a way into a conversation about the prose.

It’s all too easy to take a typical sample of academic writing and point out the jargon, phrases devoid of meaning, tangles of syntax, and blocks of dull nominalizations. Everyone reading such an analysis would groan in recognition, and it wouldn’t take much study to see where and how the writing had gone wrong. People might feel, for a few moments, better about their own work—as long as they didn’t recognize any of their own tics or bad habits in the icky sample.

As I told my friend who’d complained about the prose in an academic book, I would absolutely not assign a book purely because it was badly written. But I do understand why he asked the question. He was frustrated. He’d been interested in the topic but couldn’t abide its delivery.

Sometimes reading bad writing is irritating because we recognize that we make the same mistakes in our own work. It’s like looking at photos in the "What not to wear" section of a trashy magazine and wondering, "What were they thinking?" but occasionally also thinking, "Oh. I might have worn something like that."

When I read something ugly I’ll try to make a mental note not to do that, whatever that is. It might be a phrase I thought was clever until I see someone else use it, and I think "How pretentious!" It might be a word I overuse because I think it makes me sound smart, or a complicated sentence construction that assumes the reader will stay with me. Often, I think, my bad writing is the result of trying too hard to impress. But sometimes, it’s plain dumb laziness—not reaching far enough, not taking the time to rewrite.

Repeating the same words, never varying the sentence structure. Yep. It’s easy to identify lazy writing in other people’s pages and hard to write well yourself.

So perhaps assigning Twilight would be a useful exercise. Or at least, reading a tiny portion of it. Looking at any random page would teach most of the lessons I’d want my students to learn, and then we could move along to a book by a better writer. Students would get a little ego boost by being able to recognize what makes bad writing bad and would, perhaps, feel challenged to do better.

But I also fear that the exercise would encourage some of the bad habits of academic life that I would rather my students not learn—like picking something apart for the sake of being critical and feeling intellectually superior without taking the next step to use your enhanced knowledge to improve your own work. I call that frame of mind "reading like a graduate student."

I would hope that when professors are assigning texts in their own fields, they might take a few moments in class discussions to linger on the prose when it’s good. Point out what makes it work. Challenge students to remember that good writing and good content are both/and rather than either/or. Ask yourself and your students: Who are the excellent stylists in the field, and what can we learn from them?

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

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