Saturday, May 21, 2011

Garbage In, Garbage Out?

If you were to eat often at fast food joints, you would likely become overweight and develop high cholesterol or high blood pressure. If you are sloppy in following a recipe for a souffle, chances are high your souffle will be low. If you do little research before writing your novel, it will probably be full of factual errors.

Software engineers have a term for this phenomenon: Garbage in, garbage out. You can't expect good results from bad inputs.

When I was young, I read everything—cereal boxes, all the magazines my parents got, all sorts of books, good, bad, and indifferent from the library. I also watched plenty of after-school and Saturday morning TV and saw the "Winston takes good like a cigarette should" advertisement often.

Every time I see a published book that uses "like" as a conjunction instead of "as," I wonder whether it's the fault of that Winston commercial. How could a copyeditor overlook such an error unless she has heard incorrect language so often that her brain no longer notes it as wrong?

Similarly, Every Day Fiction recently ran a short story in which the writer broke every rule of good writing, to laugh-out-loud effect. (See "The Most Epicly Awesomest Story! Ever!!" by Randy Henderson.) It was epically, awesomely awful....yet the comments suggest that a few readers didn't notice it was horribly written. Again, I wondered whether the amount of bad writing people are exposed to constantly on television, in ads, in books rushed too quickly to print, and in books put out by publishers who no longer use copyeditors has dulled people's ability to tell good writing from bad.

Since I've been a writer, I'm much more careful about what I expose my brain to. Garbage in, garbage out: I don't want to subconsciously adopt grammar errors, word use errors, logic errors, structure errors, or any other writing error and then reproduce them in my own stories and books. I don't read things that are badly written or badly argued or badly structured unless I want to analyze how they went wrong. If the description of a self-published book is poorly organized or contains two or more grammar or spelling mistakes, I don't buy it, assuming the text will be just as grating to read. I watch few TV shows or movies and generally limit myself to high-quality ones.

The result, I hope, will be that my writing will be in the mode of the best writing being done, unpolluted by bad habits picked up from bad writing.

What's your take? Am I overcautious, or am I on the right track? How do you avoid being influenced by bad writers?

Thanks for coming by. I'll be blogging again at NovelSpaces on June 5.

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

I don't worry much about it. If something is too bad I can't read it. If it's only mildly bad but with a good story I might still get through it. I figure most of your 'habits' are learned young so I'm not likely to acquire a new bad habit now just from reading something in a poor book. My bad habits are already ingrained.

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, I still find myself influenced by what I hear and read, so I still worry about picking up bad habits and losing good ones.

Gary Williams said...

I love reading books that aren't written particularly well. The reason is that I analyze each sentence and think how I would improve it (or cut the text completely.) In doing so, it makes me a better writer. Of course the problem is that it takes me thirty minutes to read a couple of pages. I usually don't finish poorly written books because of how I scrutinize them. (And even books by established authors always have awkward sentences that make me shake my head. lol)

Liane Spicer said...

If a book is badly written I can't finish it because the writing keeps jolting me out of the story.

Misuse (abuse) of language does indeed have an insidious effect if you're exposed to it often enough, whether in novels, advertisements, newspapers or elsewhere. I sometimes find myself checking words and expressions that I've seen misused so often that I started to doubt myself.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I think of language as dynamic, not static. Therefore what's proper language, good grammar etc. won't be that way in a generation; even in a few years. The Webster Dictionary continually adopt new words that become an accepted part of our vernacular.

Therefore, I read it all: good grammar, bad grammar, made up words, slang, the Queen's English. I even incorporate it in a limited fashion in my fiction (most often as direct speech), and more extensively in the cultural short stories that I write.

That said, if a book is just so bad that it is hard to read, I simply abandon it.