Why writers should read good and bad writing; the importance of proofreading
Published: February 1, 2010
Q: I’ve heard the advice that writers should read whatever they can, even if it’s bad. Why bother?
Actively reading great works of fiction is like taking a class from the masters. You learn the tools and techniques that are available to writers and the variety of ways that they can be used. Actively reading means you ask questions of the work to understand the writer’s choices. For example, why did F. Scott Fitzgerald choose to tell The Great Gatsby from the perspective of Gatsby’s neighbor, Nick Carraway? What makes Russell Banks’ long, languid sentences in The Sweet Hereafter flow so smoothly? How does Maxine Kumin create such a distinct sense of loss in her poem “Splitting Wood at Six Above”?
So, why bother reading “bad” writing? There are a few reasons this might be useful. First, if you can learn from what works, you can also learn from what doesn’t. For example, if you find yourself laughing or rolling your eyes at what should be a tender moment, figure out why that’s happening. What choices did the author make that elicits a response so different from what was intended? It’s often easier to recognize these kinds of cringe-worthy moments in other writers’ work. Once you identify what’s happening, you can avoid it in your own writing.
Also, the reading experience is subjective. Not everyone agrees on exactly what’s “good” and “bad” when it comes to literature. You may find an often celebrated work off putting. If you chalk it up as a “bad” book, you’re losing an opportunity to see what others value in it. Ask yourself why it might appeal to some readers. You may still think it’s bad, but at least you’ve taken the opportunity to learn something from it.
Lastly, great ideas can come out of writing that’s not great literature. We probably won’t be reading the tabloids published today in decades to come, but they can certainly spark some interesting character ideas. The singsong poems on the back of the children’s cereal box may not be brilliantly written, but the one about the monkey might make you consider a setting or an interaction that you wouldn’t otherwise.
Q: Do I really need to spend a lot of time doing a final proofread before submitting my fiction? Isn’t that what an editor does?
Polished writing is an indication of your attention to detail. If you don’t know where the commas go—and where they don’t belong—can the reader really trust that you’ll know how to craft a character, maintain consistency in setting, or follow through on tension? Early pages riddled with grammar issues will hinder the reader’s confidence in the writer.
Additionally, poor grammar can make your work difficult to read. If an editor can’t understand your sentences, it won’t matter how vivid the character or how compelling the plot. Give your work the best chance you can. Proofread. Proofread. Then, proofread again.
Many editors certainly do a close edit before sending an issue to the printer. But the story has to make it to that point first. Keep the grammar clean, so readers and editors can focus on the artistry and intrigue of your story.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
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