Today I’d like to share a sneak peek at my forthcoming book, 10 Core Practices for Better Writing, which will be available in early July.
The book explores 10 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
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 work will sound mature. Read poetry and your work will be fluid and musical.
It’s important to read technically adept writing so you don’t pick up bad grammar habits but 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?
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!