Improve Your Writing by Reading Rubbish

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Shocked man reading

I must admit, I’ve always been a bit of a literary snob.

This is probably due to the fact that I studied classic literature in high school and university. I once took an entire course just on Hamlet.

Recently I decided I was going to stop being a literary snob. While there are hundreds of classic books I still want to read, I made a commitment to myself to read more widely and include commercial fiction.

The reason I did this was not because I thought I would enjoy it any better, but because we can all stand to learn by studying different types of writing and what they have to offer.

A Reading Case-Study

Last week I picked up a copy of High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby. It’s not something I would normally have read judging by its blurb, and I haven’t seen the movie.

The gist of the story is that 35 year old Rob has just broken up with his long-term girlfriend and is trying to make sense of his past and present romantic failures. He gets in contact with former flames and tries to figure out where he went wrong and what he wants for his future.

Let me say first, the title I gave this post is a bit sensational. I can no longer classify High Fidelity as rubbish, and here’s why:

It taught me a few great lessons about writing.

Here are some of the tips I learned from reading this book:

  1. Life-like dialogue is important. Hornby really does have a gift for writing dialogue. There’s probably dialogue on almost every page in this book, and I can’t describe it as anything less than ‘effortless.’ It’s like listening to real people speak, only with a higher degree of clarity.
  2. You don’t have to be fancy to be effective. There isn’t any upscale language or use of literary devices here. It’s more like hearing some guy sit down and tell you a story about himself.
  3. You can improve your title by making it work on more than one level. High Fidelity is a reference to the record shop in which the main character works, but ‘fidelity’ is also evocative of Rob’s personal struggle with being faithful to one partner for the rest of his life.
  4. Character flaws are important. The story is written in the first-person, which means we hear about Rob from Rob’s point of view. There are times we absolutely detest his character, and times we learn to understand where he’s coming from. Isn’t that reality? Aren’t all people flawed and multi-dimensional?
  5. Many great writers write stuff you won’t like. I can’t classify this as rubbish now that I’ve read it, because I can recognize the fact that Hornby is a very good writer. He just happens to write stuff I don’t particularly like. One has to learn to objectively separate good writing from bad writing.

Sure, the plot is on the shallow side and there’s a lot of gratuitous profanity. The story doesn’t have the warmth of Hornby’s other hit, About A Boy. But sometimes we can separate personal preferences from the objective study of literature and be better off for it.

I’m not suggesting you go out and read absolute bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. Just be more open to the types of books you read and you’ll soon start to see the benefits.

What books are outside of your usual interests, but have taught you something invaluable?

{ 4 comments }

Austin November 25, 2009 at 2:55 pm

Hey Suzannah,

I stumbled across your blog through Twitter and I love the content, keep it up!

As for this particular post, I've always been this way with my reading. I hate to stick to one genre or type of book. I constantly bounce around–from literary classics, to teen dramas, to pop fiction, to sci-fi, to whatever else strikes my fancy. My wife is the same way and we often suggest books to each other. Sometimes I read through a book and it's rubbish, but you're right, there are still things you can learn (like what not to do).

I think it's also important that writers read for fun. You don't always have to look for a lesson. If you're slogging through a book just because someone said it has great writing, but you hate it, stop reading it! I took a literary criticism class in grad school and it nearly destroyed my love of reading. I spent half the semester dissecting 100 Years of Solitude and I almost lost my mind. When my books became specimens and my reading turned into an exercise, my motivation to turn the next page waned. My strategy is just to read as much as I can as often as I can, and be open to potential lessons along the way.

Suzannah November 25, 2009 at 9:01 pm

Hi Austin,

I'm glad you found me! Hope you enjoy the articles here.

I know what you mean about reading for fun. I got so used to reading critically for school that I didn't have time for anything else. Now I'm trying to undo some of that. I think it's important to study literature so we can learn, but you do need to sit back and enjoy it sometimes, as well.

Thanks!

dirtywhitecandy November 25, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Thought-provoking post. Most of my reading time is spent on books for research – either factual or to see what other fiction writers have done with a genre. This has led me to many genres I wouldn't necessarily have tried.

For instance, recently I was doing some sample chapters for a ghostwriting project and the genre was chick-lit, which I'd always been a bit sniffy about. Well there are trashy examples, of course, but there are also authors whose books are admirable in many ways, with slick characterisation, warm writing, deft plotting and that elusive page-turning factor.

Suzannah November 25, 2009 at 10:57 pm

Hello!

You make a great point about chick-lit. It's easy to lump in all the examples of those that have admirable qualities with the trashy ones. I suppose the same could be said about award-winning literary fiction. Certain books have won awards and they're wonderful; others I wouldn't even give the time of day.

Thank you!

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