Get your free copy of The Simple Writing Writers Guide

An unusual way to improve your writing

Download free ebooks and read lousy writing to improve yours

Writers read—if you can’t read, you can’t write, plain and simple. And one of the best ways to improve your writing is to read good books, articles, or heck, read the backs of cereal boxes. I don’t care. Just read.

Think about it.

Kids learn language because they’re immersed in it. Special tutoring or teaching isn’t necessary because humans naturally absorb language like a sponge soaks up water.

And beyond the language itself, kids learn dialects, accents, vocabulary, colloquialisms, and slang depending on the environment.

Ever hear a child utter a curse word and a flabbergasted parent ask, “Where did you learn that?” Obviously she heard it somewhere, dude. Have you ever used it?

In the same way, your reading informs your writing: hearing is to speaking as reading is to writing.

And by immersing yourself in the likes of Shakespeare, Austen, Faulkner, or Oates—or the latest New York Times Best Sellers—you’ll naturally model your own writing on whatever you’ve read.

Throw in some non-fiction, magazine articles, blog posts—whatever—it influences you. And you won’t even realize it. Stir it all up with the language you speak and hear and presto! That’s basically how you write.

But if you only read the good stuff, how will you know what’s bad?

Worse, how will you know when your own writing sucks?

Just because you usually read good or great writing doesn’t mean your own writing is going to come out like that. At least not right away.

After all, writers have a lot to learn, and one way to write better is to read less-than-brilliant writing.

I don’t mean total trash although that can be helpful. I mean something good enough to hold your interest and bad enough that problems stand out.

Spend time reading lousy writing

I don’t like to judge other writers harshly and call their writing “lousy” or “bad.” We’ve all been there, after all, and everyone spews forth a pile of crap from time to time.

But you can learn from it because it’s easier to find fault with someone else’s writing than to criticize your own. And when you figure out what the problems are, you can vow to never make the same mistake.

Here’s what to do.

Download free books and evaluate them

This is great for any writer but especially creative writers. And just so you know, I’ve only done this with novels, so you’ll have to explore non-fiction or other genres. But the same advice applies.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble, for starters, offer plenty of free ebooks. If you don’t like novels, search your preferred category for the freebies.

I’ve tried a few novels that looked promising but, unfortunately, aren’t worth reading beyond the first few pages. Others, despite some issues, are pretty good. And a couple I read are almost great, but it’s easy to see what’s holding them back.

When I finished the last one, Silence, I felt frustrated because it’s a good story. The basic plot is solid, and I was drawn in enough to care about the characters—what I learned of them.

But the pace is way too fast, and the ending seems like it was just slapped on. Worse, the foreshadowing is awkward and way too obvious. But additional development at every level would mean a big improvement. It feels like a gutted mansion with no paint, no appliances, no furniture, and no frills.

Check out the reviews. With 1,626 reviews—even though many are negative—you know it struck a chord for a lot of people. It’s strong, but it could be so much better.

Blog posts and other non-fiction writing usually improve with a good stripping down. Novels, not so much. And in any kind of writing, it’s about balance. Concise doesn’t always mean short or bare-bones.

Find a few freebies that seem appealing, and evaluate them. What’s done well? What’s not done well? In some cases, typos and poor grammar wreck the thing from the start. In others, it’s not so obvious, and you might have to do some thinking.

Scan local—really tiny—newspapers

If you’re used to reading big city newspapers, you might be shocked by the writing standards in local papers.

It’s true that small town newspaper readers don’t necessarily want or need high fallutin’ writing. They just want their meat and potatoes. And it’s also true that small town newspaper budgets can’t cover salaries for editors and proofreaders like the big timers do.

So it’s no surprise the writing isn’t fabulous. But you can learn from it.

I was a little shocked when I read one writer’s articles. She’s the owner of a landscaping nursery in southern New Jersey, where I used to live. When she said she was a columnist for the local newspaper, I made a point to look her up.

She knows her business but, like most of us, her articles sure could use a proofreader. A copyeditor is more like it.

Make a Fairy Garden

What are the problems with this article? I see plenty of typos and misused or misspelled words. But what else? How would you improve it? I’ll leave this one up to you—share in the comments.

Read some blogs with terrible writing

In your blogospheric travels, you’ve surely found some poorly written posts.

The worst writing is often on websites that try to look authoritative, but the sole purpose of those sites is to make money via advertising. A topic is chosen based on popular keyword searches, and a team of low-paid writers is hired to write articles in a hurry. Some or even all articles are “spun” from reputable sources, and the writers aren’t always native English speakers—and they’re not 100% fluent.

No harm in non-native, less-than-perfect English on a blog where personality and value make up for the errors. But when you want solid information, lousy writing is a red flag. And you go somewhere else.

You can easily find less-than-stellar writing on any of the free website providers, like WordPress.com.

Keep in mind that plenty of excellent blogs run on WordPress.com and other free sites, like Tumblr or Squarespace. But if you browse past the good ones, you’ll find examples of writing you don’t want to emulate.

  • Go to WordPress.com.
  • Click on Freshly Pressed.
  • Click on Browse Tags.
  • Pick a tag and scroll way down.
  • Check out a few entries until you find something that’s pretty awful.
  • Evaluate the mistakes. Basic grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues will stand out. Poor organization and sentence structure, illogical conclusions, or overuse of clichés and generalizations might be trickier to spot.

A few examples of problematic writing:

In my creative writing class in high school we had an assignment to write about a perfect date in order to utilize imagery.  For my date I went to the guys house, he made steak, mashed potatoes and asparagus for us, then after a bunch of other random descriptions of shit I ended it with eluding that I stayed the night.  I didn’t get the best score on the assignment, NOT because of the imagery, that apparently was fine, what she didn’t agree with was the actual set up of the scene.

I apologies now for the bad photos but I had to try. Couldn’t believe how brave this fox was. The mister and I bumped into this little guy on our way home from work. Where I work foxes are a common sight, though usually a quick glimpse is all you get, this little guy happily sat there and watched us. The cheeky little creature ran behind a building and popped out the other side to watch us. Hopefully our paths will cross, I’ll have to keep an eye out for my new foxy friend.

A child is a blessing, a gift for the continuity of life, he or she is helpless, innocent and fragile, and they are dependent on his or her parents for all their needs as they grows up. These situations of a child should not be taken advantage of, parents must be on guard at all times. If the way he or she was reared was tainted with negative experiences like verbal or physical abuse, the child will either develop a character that is not supposed to be for a normal individual. How can we prevent child verbal abuse?

All three examples are worthwhile topics: gender bias in the classroom, an encounter with wildlife, and child abuse prevention. And each one has some good elements. But the problems detract from the potential.

What problems do you see in each example? How would you improve them? Share in the comments.

Enjoyable writing doesn’t have to be perfect. Besides, no writing is ever perfect because judgment is subjective: what some readers love, others hate. Still others are indifferent.

But any writing has to meet a certain standard for its class.

Young or inexperienced readers might not notice problems in a novel with a decent story.

Small town newspaper readers who know a columnist’s information is valuable and trustworthy will overlook (or not even notice) sloppy writing.

And family or friends don’t care about the quality of blog posts any more than most of us care about the quality of Facebook posts.

But you, dear reader, you want to be the best writer ever. And like every good writer, you’re always on the lookout for improvement. You don’t settle for less. Right?

Photo credit goXunuReviews

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
5 comments… add one
  • I ran a house magazine and written a variety of documents from correspondence courses to examination papers. As a writer I know avoiding writing errors is hard, especially when fuelled by a passion.

    The sticky sentence which begins the piece makes hard reading from the outset. The eight sticky words could find the reader ‘bogged-down’.

    I always try to avoid passive verbs such as were sent and were made in favour of active verbs.

    Long sentences are distracting and make it harder to read the article. This piece has a sentence of 58 words and another of 62 words quoting J M Barrie.

    With such good knowledge and interesting information the writer must avoid distracting readers with these types of obstacles.

    Reply
    • Hi Philip, You’ve made some great points.

      You’re right; it’s hard to avoid errors as we write. I make them all the time 🙂 But that’s what editing and proofreading is for. And good job that you’re watching for passive verbs and choosing active verbs instead. And sure, 58 or 62 words is pretty long–depends on the context and the purpose of the writing, though. Some really famous authors have set a few records; James Joyce is one. Ulysses contains a sentence that has over 4000 words if I recall correctly–it’s been ages since I read it, so don’t quote me. Faulkner is another one known for the long ones.

      Reply
  • Nice post, Leah!
    Debbie Erickson recently posted…News And Events, Coming Soon!My Profile

    Reply
  • Hello,

    I have to admit that it is a very good, tried and true method. My writing has improved drastically after reading books that interest me. I have to say that the readings must be enjoyable and we therefore should ready on topics that speak most to our authentic souls. I have tried this before and found it very helpful to the degree that I read some books twice on the same day!

    Thanks for the post. 🙂
    Mouhcine
    Mouhcine recently posted…Conversation#6 – Opening a Bank AccountMy Profile

    Reply

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge