Today I’d like to share an excerpt from my book, 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
The book explores ten essential habits that every writer can adopt to become a master of the craft of writing.
Today’s post features several excerpts from the first chapter, which covers the first and most important practice: reading. If you want to write better, then you need to read more.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.
Simple as that.” – Stephen King
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. They are two parts of a greater whole.
Writing is a complex and complicated skill. While basic writing skills can be taught, it’s impossible to teach the art of fine writing. It is possible to learn, but this learning is only fully achieved through reading.
The human brain is like a sponge. We soak up everything 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.
You may not be able to recite all the Mother Goose nursery rhymes you read as a child, but they’re still somewhere in that head of yours. When a little voice whispers Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, there’s a good chance you’ll recall Jack jumped over a candlestick. You absorbed that nursery rhyme many years ago, and it remains with you, always.
If you want to write well, you must read well, and you must read widely. Through reading you will gain knowledge and you will find inspiration. As you read more, you will learn to read with a writer’s eye. Even grammar sinks in when you read. If you’re worried about memorizing all the rules of grammar, then just read books written by adept writers. Eventually, it all will become part of your mental makeup.
A well-read writer has a better handle on vocabulary, understands the nuances of language, and recognizes the difference between poor and quality writing.
A writer who doesn’t read is like a musician who doesn’t listen to music or a filmmaker who doesn’t watch films. It is impossible to do good work without experiencing the good work that has been done.
All the grammar guides, writing tips, and books on writing will not make you a better writer if you never read. Reading is just as crucial as actually writing, if not more so, and the work you produce will only be as good as the work you read.
“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.” – William Faulkner
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. You might like high literature and want to pen the next Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction. You should read the classics, of course, but don’t completely avoid the bestsellers. There’s a mentality among some writers that you should only read that which you want to write. It’s hogwash. 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.
If you want to be a science fiction writer, then by all means, stock your shelves with loads of sci-fi. Buy out the science fiction section in your local bookstore. But don’t seal yourself in a box, otherwise your work will become trite. If you’re too immersed in genre, your writing will feel formulaic and not in a good way. You’ll end up playing by all the genre rules (and this is a key reason why much genre work is ignored by academics and literary elite—it’s too focused on catering to its genre and not focused enough on good storytelling). For example, do we need another epic fantasy with names that nobody can pronounce and that are oddly strewn with apostrophes? No, I don’t think we do.
So yes, you should concentrate on your genre, but don’t cut yourself off from the rest of literature. You should read a few books outside your genre each year and make sure you toss in some of those classics for good measure.
How much do you read? What are you reading now and what have you read recently? How does reading affect your writing? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
Geez… What am I reading right now?
I have books all over the place. In the morning with my coffee, I have a book-bag that sits next to my chair. I randomly open a well-worn page from any one of my favorite motivational writers, Zig Zigler, Jim Rohn, any of of six Stephen Covey books,or M. Scott Peck’s stuff,( Just to name a few) The Right to Write,and a few other books by Julia Cameran, The Simple Abundance book, ( Sarah Ban Breathnach) and the Bible. I also have a collection of books that are more celtic and some based on Native American spiritual beliefs.
(I love “The Four-Fold Way, by Angeles Areeien, PH,D.)
Also, my collection of classic children’s liturature takes up one whole bookshelf… I do agree with a Wrinkle in Time, I also loved the complete Wizard of Oz collection and all of the Mary Poppins books.
Then we get to my novels…ok, we aren’t going there. Well, maybe just one, I am almost finished with Going Postal,by Terry Prachett. It is very creative and a hoot. I am having so much fun with it.
Now, aren’t you sorry you asked? I am a book- aholic. Once you get me going, it’s so hard to stop. Every room of our house is taken over with books.I started reading at four and haven’t stopped since.
Surprisingly, I’ve only got two books going at the moment. “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” (perhaps one of the best book titles ever) as I work my way through the Amelia Peabody series.
As to the rest, I agree whole-heartedly. Reading is absolutely the first and most important step to writing–especially in those “pre-writing” childhood years. Because, really, I don’t think anybody would be remotely interested in the truly bad stories I tried to write when I was 9, but I was reading constantly. (Although, I never did the reading in bed with a flashlight thing.)
I was watching “You’ve Got Mail” the other night and one of the lines was, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”
@Wendi Kelly, No, I’m not sorry I asked! I love to hear about what other people are reading. I too have an entire shelf of classic children’s lit. Actually that shelf is overflowing and ready to become two shelves 😉 I’ve almost picked up “The Four-Fold Way” several times, but I always end up choosing something else. I guess I’ll have to get it next time I’m at the bookstore. For inspiration, I love The Celestine Prophecy and Richard Bach’s work.
I’m a bookaholic too. I just haven’t had much time for reading since I started freelancing. Hopefully that will change soon. This month I’m reading and flipping through several of my poetry books, which is some of my favorite stuff!
@Deb (Punctuality), I haven’t heard of Amanda Peabody, so I’ll have to look her up on Amazon. I don’t remember that quote from You’ve Got Mail, but I couldn’t agree more!
Ameila Peabody is a Great series written by a Dr. Of Archeology. The Writer’s pen name is Elizabeth Peters. The children’s reading exchange occurs when Tom Hanks charcter first meets Kathleen, Meg Ryan’s character in the children’s bookshop. As a lover of children literature, the movie character exchange resonates with my soul. Excellent post, Melissa.
That sounds interesting, Annette. Thanks for sharing!
I wasn’t a big reader back in my young days. I didn’t like to spend to much time on the same thing. I like diversity and have a really short attention span. I did love watching TV though. That’s a bit fiction right. I used to be able to place myself in front of the tele all day long, not anymore because I feel as if I know every plot twist in history and I’m no longer surprised or excited by the most new TV series.
My three last books I read where all three in Spanish -it’s for one of my uni courses. I like reading in Spanish. It has a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. If I ever get proficient enough in Spanish, I might attempt to write something in the language. But for now I’m sticking with English.
@Manictastic, I’ve never been much of a TV watcher. There are a few shows that have hooked me over the years. Right now, I’m loving Without a Trace. I definitely think TV (and movies) can be a great source of inspiration. I find that sometimes when I’m trying to write a piece or a story, I see it in my head like a film rather than in words like a book.
I took French for many years but I am not at all fluent. I can read it more than I can understand it when spoken. Still, I don’t think I could get through a whole book in French, so I admire you’re being able to read in two languages. I think that’s awesome. Wish I could do that.
It’s true–reading a lot will improve your writing.
I think most prolific writers are also prolific readers.
I credit a voracious appetite for reading as the most important aspect to my development as a writer.
Writers generally have a natural urge to read, although some need to be reminded of how helpful it is–and enjoyable as well.
@Jessie, I credit my reading for my development as a writer too! There are so many benefits to reading, it would be impossible to list them all, though maybe I should write a post about that one of these days.
More reading DEFINIELY leads to better writing. In fact, I think it’s one of the most important things you can do if you want to become a better writer. I always feel really inspired to write after reading a great book. Speaking of books, are you on Goodreads? I just signed up as Positively Present! 🙂
I’ve never heard of Goodreads. I shall go Google it now!
Let me first say, I love this website. I love to hear about others sharing in my love of reading and kindred spirits that have been obsessed with books since we learned how to read.
Currently, I’m reading “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg and “The Listeners” by Christopher Pike. I usually have 2 or 3 books going at a time. A non-fiction, adult fiction, and young reader or young adult fiction book.
I would like to believe that reading obsessively has helped my writing. At the very least, it’s given me a diverse vocabulary.
Although, I find it extremely difficult to remain in my favorite genre when choosing what to read. I love reading anything that even remotely strikes my interest. To help with that, I give a book 40-50 pages to grab my interest further and then if I can’t get into it…I set it aside. It was a sad day when I realized I could not read all the books I want in my lifetime.
Therefore, I plan to live forever so I can read everything I want that’s currently written and everything that is still being brought to life by fellow authors.
Thanks so much for your kind words, Hannah. Writing Down the Bones is one of the best books for writers that I have ever read. I’m certain that your obsessive reading has helped with your writing. How could it not? I need to start setting books aside if they can’t hold me after 50 pages. I tend to just stop reading altogether, and that’s no good! If only there was a way for all of us passionate readers to find a way to live forever, just so we can soak up every single page of delightful literature! Ah, wouldn’t that be wonderful? Hehee.
I have always loved to read. While I did not have control of it I did have a library card in my name when I was six.
Currently I am reading and working through Madson’s “Improv Wisdom.” I recently read Julia Child’s “My Life in France” instead of watching the movie Julia and Julie. I was so taken with her passion for food and I loved her voice.
I also read Burnett’s “A little Princess.” I didn’t like it as well as “The Secret Garden” but it was still charming.
The hardest fiction book was Webb’s “Precious Bane” which was written in an English dialect I was unfamiliar with; it was not Yorkshire. And it was full of customs I couldn’t figure out as well. It does give one an entry into a world like you’ve never known and it used to actually exist.
I don’t do much TV in general and none recently. But I see some authors I want to check out in the comments.
Now I’m trying to remember if I ever read A Little Princess. I know I saw the movie with Shirley Temple several times when I was a kid, but I just can’t remember if I read it. I know I read The Secret Garden multiple times. I’m not familiar with most of the others that you’ve mentioned, though I would be interested in Julia Child’s book. Have you read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert? It’s about personal transformation through eating, praying, and loving. Heh.
Please let me know which sentences are more common or grammatical??
1 . The more you read, the better your writing will become.
2 . The more you read, the better your writing will be.
3 . As more you read, the better your writing will become.
4 . As more you read, the better your writing will be.
The last two sentences are definitely incorrect. Your best bet for finding answers to questions like this is to check a grammar and/or style guide.
I will use something from this site, for my paper due tomorrow, AND i will properly cite. I had typed something before, but I then deleted it because it was really, really long :(.
I always get an 80 on my college english papers in this class, except for the 100 in descriptive writing, yet I think some of my points were deducted because of my style. Writing is my outlet, while reading allows me to learn. I do not limit my array of books. Is it weird to read a book and to be able to copy the writer’s style? Also have you noticed that endings of books are easy to see not even half-way? In a way, reading can poison. It can disinterest you as with the person above saying 40-50 pages to interest them. It is a strange correlation. I do it differently. I judge a book by its flow or more importantly by the way my mind sees it as correct. My mind acts like it does in a chess game, cross-referencing with all matches, with all possible meanings and such.
I have to get back to typing my paper: To Read. To Write. To Be Literate.
I really do dislike writing “the normal way” >:] hahah lol *sometimes I do not.
I would like to be able to talk to someone who knows more than I about this business. Is it so wrong to be able to write a research paper as a story?
I don’t think it’s weird to read a book and then be able to copy a writer’s style. We do it in our speech and mannerisms too — I think we humans have a tendency to absorb the “styles” that we expose ourselves to, whether it’s how we write, speak, or move. I’m going to have to disagree with your statement that “reading can poison,” with a noted exception — if you read material that is designed to encourage you to commit cruel or evil acts, then yes, it is poisonous. But many people read texts like that without becoming poisoned. In any case, reading normal material, such as novels, is not poisonous. I guess it all depends on why you’re reading it and what you get out of it. One person might read a poorly written story and it will help that person see what not to do whereas another person may start mimicking the very traits that made the piece weak. It’s all rather subjective, isn’t it?
It’s not that it’s wrong to write a research paper as a story — a research paper is simply not a story. If you write it as a story, then it’s a work of creative nonfiction — a memoir, autobiography, etc. There is a certain structure that qualifies a piece of writing as a research paper and if it doesn’t incorporate that structure, then it’s just not a research paper. That’s how I see it, anyway.
Even though this post came from the archives, it’s one hell of an important issue. So, I hope you’ll indulge this very late addition to the comments.
As a child, I was a book whore. So much so that, at one pont early on, my mother had to accompany me to the library because the librarian wouldn’t allow me to check out the books I wanted. Her reasons were, 1. I had too many (5) and couldn’t read them all in a two-week span, 2. They were above my grade level and I wouldn’t understand them. Hah! Little did she know, in addition to the 5 at her establishment, I was also borrowing 5 from the Bookmobile (remember those?) which came to our neighborhood weekly.
What have I read lately? Hmmm. The Game of Thrones (the entire series), the latest Sookie Stackhouse (my guilty pleasure), The New Yorker magazine, The Rag (an e-zine literary magazine), Writing Forward blog (gotta mention that! 🙂 ) among others, and, of course, the spectrum of pieces from the 4 other members of the weekly writer’s group. The shelves in my library sag under the weight of an eclectic mix from memior to stage and screen plays.
Stage scripts can be a very valuable tool for learning to write dialogue. With the exception of setting the scene (Act 1 takes place in a the run-down loft apartment of Jake Hammond, etc.) and minimal stage direction (Jake enters stage left), there is no descriptive; the entire story must be told through dialogue. I’ve actually used this type of writing as a building block for several short stories. I wrote all the dialogue as if I were writing a stage play, then went back and filled in all the descriptive.
As for TV, if you want a lesson in crisp, realistic dialogue and character development check out the HBO series, “The Newsroom.” Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue soars into the stratosphere!
What a great comment, Paul. Thanks for adding to the discussion and making this post even more valuable with your insight. Keep writing!
These days, I’m reading “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” by Walter Isaacson. Besides an interst in Franklin’s life, what made me chose this particular biography was reading an excerpt of “Steve Jobs” by the same author. I loved his writing style and knew I’d enjoy anything he wrote.
I’ve also recently read several titles by William Zinsser, including “On Writing Well.” So I’m reading for enjoyment of the topic and of the writing itself. My vocabulary and sensibility for language has increased more this year alone than in the past 5.
It sounds like you’re reading some interesting books. The Steve Jobs bio is on my to-read list. I’ll have to add the bio about Franklin, too. Thanks for sharing!
I read all the time, and I agree with this article. But I don’t think it’s unequivocally true. I read a Danielle Steel interview recently where she said she writes so much that she is only reading about three months out of the year—and then it is generally self help books.
Three months! That is one of the most famous modern authors.
But for me, I love to read and do it everyday.
I would say that being famous and writing well are two different things. I can’t judge Danielle Steele’s writing since I don’t think I’ve ever read one of her books, but I am aware that many “famous modern authors” crank out a book per year or more (and probably don’t read much). They are certainly productive and they may be rich or successful, but that doesn’t mean their writing is great.
hi im Danielle. im 17 years old and i just turned a senior in high school and im turn 18 in November since April 10 2009 i have been writing im very creative i get inspiration from almost anything my past. or a book im reading or a movie i seen or a person that im talking to. im really into the Shakespeare. i know im young but im real good at making modern urban story’s and adult appropriate story’s but i don’t know if writing is something i should go into because of the fat that your books don’t sell or you don’t have anyone to read your blogs. so i was going to put that on hold for a career of psychological, but i dont know
Hi Danielle. You’ve said that you don’t know if you should go into writing because books don’t sell or there’s nobody to read blogs. Books do sell and people do read blogs. As a writer, you do have to create books and blogs that people want to read, which means honing your writing so it is of a professional quality (something you’d probably have to do in a psychology career as well). Then you find people to buy your books and read your blogs (this is done through marketing). Saying that “your books don’t sell or you don’t have anyone to read your blogs” is the same as saying, “you have no patients.” Whatever you do, you’ll have to find your customers. I recommend doing what you love, working at it to become an expert, and learning all sides of it. In writing that means developing your writing skills but also studying the industry to learn about publishing and marketing. Good luck to you!
Melissa I have been reading Writing Forward for quiet sometime now nad find it interesting and helpful. Thank you, Glenn
Thank you, Glenn. I appreciate your kind words.
Sounds like an interesting book, Melissa. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Thanks, Bridget. I hope you enjoy it!