Wednesday, December 7, 2011

When Bad Writing Gets Published

Post by Kerrie
We have all had the experience where we read a book, an article, a short story… and we say to ourselves, “I can write better than that.” And we wonder why that got published when all we have is a stack of rejection letters.

Why does bad writing get published? Because what makes writing good or bad is completely subjective. It all someone’s opinion and that is where the challenge lies in getting published. Stephanie Meyer is not the best writer in the world, and many critiques were quick to point that out. But, whether or not her writing was good or bad is pointless to argue. The Twilight series clearly resonated with teenage girls across the country and they loved the story.

But, not all is lost if we find ourselves reading something we feel a 5th grader could have done a better job writing. We can use these “bad” writing examples as tools to help us grow as writers. Instead of just throwing the piece aside, study it. Why did you think it was bad? What would you have done differently? Then you can even take it a step further and rewrite parts of it.

One of my favorite “bad” books is the bestselling novel, “The Bridges of Madison County.” How it got to be a bestseller is beyond me, but that is just my opinion. Many others obviously felt different about it.

Here is an excerpt from the book:
Kincaid wore faded Levi’s, well-used Red Wing field boots, a khaki shirt, and orange suspenders. On his wide leather belt was fastened a Swiss Army knife in its own case. He looked at his watch: eight-seventeen. The truck started on the second try, and he backed out, shifted gears, and moved slowly down the alley under hazy sun. Through the streets of Bellingham he went, heading south on Washington 11, running along the coast of Puget Sound for a few miles, then following the highway as it swung east a little before meeting U.S. Route 20.

Turning into the sun, he began the long, winding drive through the Cascades. He liked this country and felt unpressed, stopping now and then to make notes about interesting possibilities for future expeditions or to shoot what he called “memory snapshots.” …

This description and telling goes on for pages and pages. In fact, it goes on throughout the whole book, which is the main reason I don’t like it. I am not one for drawn out descriptions. I don’t really care that his Swiss Army knife had its own case and I really don’t care that he went south on Washington 11 or any of the other roads.

If I was to rewrite it, I would cut a bunch out. Here is what I would say:
Kincaid tossed his knapsack on the seat next to him of his Chevy pickup. A quick scan of the cab reassured him he had everything he needed for his trip from Bellingham to Duluth. The truck started on the second try and he headed down the alley under the hazy morning sun.

Bam! Right to the point and we get him on the road in a few sentences. (Some of the details I included were from some previous paragraphs in the book) My rewritten version isn’t amazing, but at least it isn’t laden with description. But by looking at what I didn’t like, I was able to discern what I felt was the important information, disregard the rest and really think about what goes into good writing.

So how about you, have you ever studied bad writing?



Dianne K. Salerni said...

I like your version a LOT better, but I still wouldn't read a book about a man visiting bridges in Madison County or any county. Not. Ever.

I admire how you analyzed what you didn't like and used it to hone the style of writing that you prefer.

I'm just not sure I have the patience to read what I don't like to figure out what I don't like about it. LOL!

Dean K Miller said...

Other than my own, not really. Might have recognized some along the way and used that to inspire my own work though.

Published work, good, bad or indifferent, is published work. The reading public has the final say, and sometimes they get it wrong, too.

Now I've got to go back and take all those specific streets out of my draft before you read it!!!

Jan Cline said...

I have read those kinds of books and wondered why in the world a publisher would accept it. As writers we try and follow most of the rules and sometimes that's not good enough. It makes no sense sometimes, but we keep working on our craft and hope someone doesnt throw our published book into the trash. I like your version better by the way.

Kerrie said...

Dianne, I actually read the whole book when it first came out. I kept wondering when it was going to get better and why it what so popular. I never did figure it out.

Dean, I appreciate you going through and getting rid of all the street names in the manuscript you want me to read. It will save me tons of time and headaches. ;-)

I agree Jan, we just have to hang in there. I am glad you like my version better. :-)

Clarissa Draper said...

I have never read Bridges before but I'm glad I didn't waste so much of my life doing so. I am a writer that prefers cutting out all the unnecessary details.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Once I learned how to do a better job of self-editing my own work, I found it harder to read for fun. I notice everything, including the occasional factual goof, bad word choice, awkward sentence, or broken "rule."

I don't always avoid stories with too much description, though. It depends. I don't want a lot of description in a thriller, but do want it in a story set in a foreign country. Bridges of Madison County was what I call a snowy day, hot chocolate read...but it was back before I learned all that stuff about writing and editing. :)

KarenG said...

I analyze every book I read, bad and good, and yes I've often wondered about some of them! Like your example, many can do with some real strong editing to start with.

Jay Sims said...

Well put! I'm guilty of over-writing my own work as well. I've had to learn to keep only what furthers character and plot and scrap the rest.

I enjoyed this post immensely and I thoroughly agree with your rewrite.

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