Of course, as a writer, you need to read a lot. But while you obviously should read a lot of exemplary writing, you should also read a lot of bad writing.
Now, in matters of taste, there is no such thing as good or bad. So what in hell do I mean? Three things:
1. Read writing that’s just plain ineffective. You don’t have to go out of your way to do this; you’re surrounded by it. You just usually ignore it – which is how you can tell it’s ineffective.
Official notices are sterling examples, because they usually use ridiculously stiff language. “Patrons are advised to abstain from the smoking of tobacco products and other products within 30 metres of the doorway.” Would you say that to someone in person? It uses indirect phrasing and adds extra words for apparent self-protection. If it said “Don’t smoke or vape within 30 metres of the doorway,” would it be more effective? How about if you added “Please”? How about “Please be kind”?
Every time you see some text that you are inclined to ignore, or an article or blog entry that bores you immediately, take at least a moment to think about what makes it so ineffective and how it could be fixed. (Under no circumstances should you take out a marker and actually fix it. That’s vandalism, which is not only illegal but also assholish. And they’re not paying you. Why do freebies?)
2. Read writing that other people like that you think is bad. It’s fun and easy to shred books by Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) and E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey), but millions of people have bought and enjoyed them. It’s worth figuring out what things about them bother you – and other people – and what things about them have made them successful. Read them and read other things that drive you nuts. Proceed on the basis that the people who read them are actually decent, normal, intelligent people who are not in fact delusional barbarians. It may well be the case that the same stories could have been told even better, but the books tell them effectively enough to sell well. And that’s the point of writing: to produce an effect on the reader.
To produce several effects, in fact, one of which is to give you money. Oh, stop kvetching about filthy lucre! If you’re writing stuff that people are glad they’ve read, you deserve money.
So pick over those turkeys. Enjoy the parts you like. Chew over the parts you don’t like. If it bugs you, why does it? And are you doing the same thing in your writing? Experience tells me that if there’s something someone else does that annoys you, you probably do something like it yourself from time to time. It’s not always true, but it’s true uncomfortably often. Lap it up. If you’re not learning from life, you suck at living.
3. Read writing that you like that other people think is bad. Here’s the fun part. All those “genre” books that people sneer at? If you like them, enjoy them! Do you actually like Dan Brown and E.L. James? Congratulations! Life is always better when you like more things.
Some people just love picking at things and finding as many reasons as they can to hate them. The result of this little triumph of supposed superiority is being surrounded by things you hate. If you genuinely dislike something, very well; if you know why, even better; but if you also see things you like, that’s better still. No one likes everything, but the more things you find ways to like, the more things in your life that you like. Contrary to popular belief (popular among adolescents and the more annoying kind of university students), finding things to like is not simple-minded; in fact, it takes a much greater effort of the intellect to find positive detail in things you first disliked than it does to find negative detail in things you first liked. I’ve tried both, so I know: nitpicking is as easy as farting, and about as endearing.
If you happen to like a particular genre of writing, read as much of it as you want. This will support writers whose work you enjoy, and in the long run, one of those writers may be you. If you get to know a genre well and enjoy it well, you are more likely to be able to write it well. You won’t be blundering into it trying things that have been done to death. You’ll find new twists.
I guess not everyone knows this, but a genre is a conversation. Every story written in that genre is a new addition to that conversation: You said this? Well, how about this? Here’s a twist on what you said, and here’s a reference to what this other person said, and here’s an answer to what that other person said. The more you’ve listened, the more interesting and engaged your contribution can be. If you just wander in without having paid much attention to the previous conversation, well… you’ll be like that person who wanders into a conversation and makes points that have already been made and addressed.
This also applies to writing overall, since there aren’t actually doorless walls between genres. The more you read, the more you see what other people have read, the more ideas you get, the more you can see what you like and what you don’t, the more you know what to try and what to avoid.
The more you write, too…