Improve Your Writing By Reading Like a Fiend
“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”
- Samuel Johnson
To write well, there are only two things you absolutely must do: read and write. Everything else will flow from these two activities, which are essentially yin and yang. Without each other, reading and writing cannot exist. They rely on one another, inform and direct one another. They are two parts of a greater whole.
How Does Reading Improve Your Writing?
Does what we read make our writing better? Can it make our writing worse?
What you read will inevitably inform what you write. If you want to write well, you must read well, and you must read widely. If you limit your reading to weak stories and books that are not well edited, your work will suffer. But if you balance reading the amateurish writing by also reading work that is brilliant, you’ll be able to see the difference, and you’ll better understand what constitutes excellence in the craft.
Writing is a complex and complicated skill. It’s impossible to teach the art of fine writing, but it is possible to learn it. However, this can only be achieved through reading. A well-read writer has a better handle on vocabulary, understands the nuances of language, and develops an appreciation for quality.
The human brain is like a sponge. We soak up everything that we observe and experience throughout our lives, and each thing we are exposed to becomes part of the very fiber of our beings. What we read is no exception. Our reading will have a critical influence on what we write. If we read work that is poorly structured, fraught with bad grammar, unclear, and peppered with typos, then that is the type of work we will produce.
The Effects and Pleasures of Reading Widely
“Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.” - William Faulkner
It’s important to read technically adept writing so you don’t pick up bad grammar habits, but what about the rest? What about voice and style, word choice and sentence structure? What about story and organization? How does what we read influence the more subtle aspects of our writing?
The brain is like a sponge, and we are like mirrors. We reflect back into the world all that we have taken in. If you mostly read textbooks, your writing will be dry and informative. If you read torrid romance novels, your prose will tend toward lusty descriptions. Read the classics and your voice may take on an old-fashioned or mature tone. Read poetry and your work will be fluid and musical.
If you know exactly what kind of writer you want to be, you’re in luck. Your best bet is to read a lot within your favorite genre. Find authors that resonate with your sensibility and read all their books. At the same time, you don’t want to rope yourself off from experiencing a wide range of styles. Reading outside your chosen area of specialty will diversify and expand your skills, and you’ll be equipped to bring new techniques and methods into your craft. If you so choose, you’ll even be able to walk, or perhaps cross, genre lines.
The Eye of the Writer
To improve your writing, one of the most important skills that you can develop is the ability to read critically, and more specifically, to view what you read through writers’ goggles.
It’s easy to kick back and read a good novel. If you’re reading a compelling story, you’ll be intrigued, captivated, and entertained. Often, we relax so much when we’re reading that we enter a state of leisure. But to read with a writer’s eye means to read with awareness.
There are various things that a writer should observe in a written work — things that the average, non-writer might overlook. A seasoned writer should be able to catch typos, obviously. But a writer should also be able to pick up on the subtler elements of a work.
I’m always intrigued, for example, by character names. I don’t always pay close attention to them, but often I wonder how the author managed to choose such perfect monikers for the characters. Names fascinate me so deeply that I once wrote an entire essay analyzing the names of characters in a particular book and explaining the deeper meanings that the names implied.
Here are a few other aspects of writing that you might consider while you’re reading:
- As a writer, you should be able to follow the flow of a story. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Can you pinpoint the transitions between these three phases?
- There’s something about a good book that inspires emotional responses from a reader. They actually become attached to the characters. When a writer reads, he or she should look for techniques that other authors use to engage the reader’s emotions.
- A story and its characters must progress. Can you identify how the author intertwined plot and character to move the plot forward and to force the characters to change and grow over the course of the story?
- Have you ever read a piece of writing and gotten lost or confused? If you read enough, you’ll see how important it is to make sure your work is well structured and organized in a logical way.
- Some of my favorite things to look for in stories and poems are themes, symbols, and recurring elements. These are the extra flourishes that enrich a piece of writing and give it deeper meaning.
This list could go on forever. Through reading, you’ll be exposed to every aspect of the craft: tension, pacing, description, dialogue, setting, voice, point-of-view, characterization, plot, theme, symbolism, and much more. However, the most important aspect you read for is the one that’s troubling you.
Reading to Improve Your Writing
Let’s say you write nonfiction but you have a really hard time organizing your material into digestible chunks. This is not uncommon. Often, when a person becomes an expert (which hopefully has occurred prior to you writing a book about any given subject), they see the subject matter so holistically that it becomes impossible to separate the various elements.
However, by reading plenty of nonfiction books, you will see how other writers have broken down massive amounts of information for easier consumption. You will also find some who have found clever ways of tying everything together, even though it’s all been separated.
If you always read with a mind to improve your writing, and if you pay special attention to those areas of your own writing that are giving you trouble, you’ll find that the literary canon will be your best teacher and mentor.
So, why are some would-be writers so averse to reading?
There’s no good argument against reading, and there is a book for everyone. I’ve long held the philosophy that people who don’t like to read just haven’t found the right book yet. And a writer who doesn’t read is an oxymoron.
Reading has been hailed by the greatest thinkers and leaders throughout history as the noblest of pursuits. Books are gateways to the imagination, fountains of knowledge, and a way for people to connect emotionally and intellectually.
A writer who doesn’t read is disconnected from his or her audience. Such a writer cannot possibly understand the experience that he or she is creating. So read, and to improve your writing, read like a fiend.
What are you reading right now? When you’re choosing books to improve your writing, do you stick with books about the craft of writing or do you look to the authors in your genre to teach and lead you? Leave a comment to discuss how reading informs your work.