Never Finish A Bad Book and Other Proven Ways To Get Even Better

   

One objective truth in the very subjective world of art forms is that, at first, most of our work will be, well, how to say this…crap.

This is the way it has always been. 

Unless we are a child prodigy touched by the gods of good fortune and talent, most of us are very bad before we become good. 

We get better over time by obsessive amounts of writing and reading. Some of us study writing, takes courses or even go to school where we earn degrees in English or Creative Writing. 

These are all excellent steps. 

In our darkest moments, we stalk literary agents on Twitter, pathologically liking and reposting every tweet the second it goes live. 

Over time, we get better. But how do we keep getting better? Are there any life hacks for writers to accelerate the learning curve? 

As it turns out, yes. Yes, indeed

Before you read the strategies, here’s my shortlist of criteria for these “life hacks”:

  1. They must actually work (which means scientific research, not anecdotal evidence)
  2. They must work for most (if not all) people
  3. They must work over and over again 

Just so you know, the strategies in this post meet all three of those criteria. Check them out for yourself. Test them and let me know how it goes.

 

 Never Finish a Bad Book

My philosophy about reading has always included this axiom, probably because of my ADD – like attention span. 

If a book doesn’t immeditetly grab my attention (and keep me at least mildly enthralled), I move on to the next book. 

Sadly, I’ve abandoned many more books than I’ve finished. 

As it turns out, this approach is backed up by science. Anything we do is encoded in our brains and bodies. Anything we do repeatedly is entrenched in nueral pathways. 

If you read bad books, you are effectively encoding bad writing on your brain. 

You can probably see why that could be problematic. 

The term “bad” of course is subjective. Case in point, I find many bestsellers unbearable to read. Just asthe mastery of your craft will improve so will your “antennae” for less than stellar writing or storytelling. 

Whenever your mental or emotional alarm bells go off, stop reading the book immeditetly. 

I’m not advocating abandoning a book for one bad sentence, paragraph or chapter. Most of the books I’ve stopped reading either started off poorly or dropped into long stretches of “badness”. 

(It seems only fair to point out here that my own writing is not perfect and I am daily working on my craft)

So, from here on forward, let’s all commit to only reading good books. 

Remember: You get better by never finishing a bad book.

 

Create A Master List of Bad Writing 

Is that terrible page or 100 you just read wasted time? 

Not exactly. 

Whenever you stumble on a sentence, scene or character (or book), make a note of why you stopped reading. 

What don’t you like? 

What did the author do “wrong” in your opinion? 

In doing so, you can develop your very own cheat sheet or master list of writing mistakes. You can even add to this list as you hear about other writing mistakes on blog posts or in podcasts, workshops and lectures.

The book, The Small Big, says this is a research-backed strategy for high performance. 

Especially if you glance at this list before you write or during your revision phase. 

Remember: You get better by reminding yourself what NOT to do. 

 

Shrink Your Writing 

The next set of strategies for getting better comes from a book I highly recommend called The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle. 

To get better, shrink the pace or the space

  • Shrink the pace by sloooowing down your writing. If you write in a rush, force yourself – temporarily – to write at a crawl. This enhanced focus  will reset your creativity by interrupting your pattern (Conversely, if you write like a snail you can achieve the same affect by speeding up your writing for short bursts of time). 
  • Shrink the space by writing small. If you usually write novels, write a short story. Write only dialogue or only action or only description. (Again, you can also go BIG – it’s helpful – it just a takes more time)

Remember: You get better when you shrink your writing. 

 

Write On The Boundaries

Actually, write and read on your boundaries. 

According to the book Imagine most breakthroughs occur at the boundaries of disciplines, often by non-experts who only know enough to be dangerous. 

So go to your boundaries and explore. Find new boundaries. Be a non-expert who doesn’t know better…so you just do things nobody ever thought was possible. Read widely. Cross genres. Read about poetry, pottery and popcorn. 

Remember: You get better when you write (and read) on the boundaries. 

 


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Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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Posted in books, reading, screenwriting, Success, writer, Writing
4 comments on “Never Finish A Bad Book and Other Proven Ways To Get Even Better
  1. Juli Hoffman says:

    Yes! And…no. Mostly, yes.
    I agree with step two. You can learn a great deal from bad writing, as long as it doesn’t drag your mind down with it. My ADHD hates it when I abandon books. I keep hoping something will change. Life support. A magic wand, perhaps? It’s going to get better. It must get better! That’s usually when I know I should have abandoned ship…err, book.
    Although, I blame a certain sparkly book about vampires for kicking me in the tush and motivating me to write my own stories, geared towards a YA audience. (Seriously, teenage girls need better role models!) I got suckered into reading Book One, got angry, and then proceeded to read the other three books in the series because I was told they DO get better as the series putters along. No, they did not get better…unles donkey poo also gets better with age and time. (I suppose compost is better than manure, but it’s still not very appealing.)
    I ranted for WEEKS (years) afterwards. What kind of message are these books sending to little girls? Why are these books filled with love triangles when the protagonist is still in high school! These books have a message: a) You’ll never be truly happy…unless you’re with a man, AND b) Teenage girls need to be rescued. They can’t possibly be happy unless they’re treated like an object. Grr!!! Of course the answer was there all along, but I didn’t want to see it at the time. If you don’t like the books that are out there…write your own!
    Simple.
    And yet, sometimes I wish I hadn’t read that series of sparkly vampire books. I am a voracious reader by nature. I did not plan on becoming a writer. One book wouldn’t have pushed me over the edge. Four angsty books were enough to create the desire to make a change.
    Everyone NEED to read a variety of books across many genres, but especially writers. It’s reading equivelent of a balanced diet. I wouldn’t have been so angry with this series if I hadn’t read other books, BETTER books. But at the same time, be careful what you read! You never know what rabbit hole you’ll go tumbling down…
    Take care and great post!

    • Juli, thank you for your honest and hilarious (and insightful) post. I hear you on the sparkly vampire series. I did read book one – all of it – which says something but I’m not sure what. The movies, I think, were better (more engaging, etc). I have read several bad books to the end, just not many and I can’t think of any of them at the moment. I do think you can learn from poorly written books. Heck, even Stephen King said as much (and who am I to discount his wisdom? 😀). Best wishes on your writing!

  2. Anonymous says:

    A long time ago, I read some writing advice that finishing a badly written book helps you know what “not” to do when developing one’s writing craft. I think I took this too seriously. I hate abandoning a book, even when I don’t like it, get too busy or I consider it badly written. Maybe I’m OCD about it. But I’ve recently realized I need to abandon a book I’m reading more often. Thank you for giving me “permission” to do so.

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