Believe it or not, I meet a lot of people who want to write well but say they don’t read. How do you know what good writing is, then? I don’t think we can, outside of reading widely and voraciously, and here’s why:
If you read often, you are picking up things that you don’t even notice. If you’re reading fiction, you’re picking characterization, point of view, dialogue, sentence structure, grammar, spelling, and story structure, among other things—all of which is important for writing your own stories. You can study those elements on your own, of course, but until you see them in action, in a story, they will remain abstract concepts.
If you are reading nonfiction, you’re also picking up characterization, sentence structure, idea organization, grammar, spelling, point of view, humor techniques (if you read humor), and the shape of nonfiction.
These things happen with your even trying.
I’ve said before that one of the most important things you can do for your writing career is to make writing a habit. I believe that making reading a habit is even more important than that. Not much more important, but still more important.
Becoming a good writer doesn’t start with writing. Becoming a good writer starts with reading. Reading introduces you to new ideas that broaden your understanding, whether or not you’re actually reading about writing. Reading, as I’ve said, shows you technique and, if you pick the right books, what mastery of language looks like. These are crucial to your writing. If you don’t read, you will not become an expert at writing. You might be able to become a decent writer, but you will not achieve expert status, because to know good writing, you have to read it. To know bad writing, you have to read it. You contain within you all the stories you have read in your life, and the more stories you read, the more skilled you will become at writing them, as the techniques and ideas of other writers flow out of your subconscious.
I believe our subconscious will pick up on these things without our even thinking about it. But if we want to learn more and faster from the texts we read, we’ll have to take notes and analyze what we like and don’t like about passages or books as a whole. I do this with about half the books I read every month, because it gets exhausting if you do it for every one. Here are some questions I ask myself when I read a brilliant passage:
- What do I like about this passage?
- How did the writer do this?
- What can I learn from this text that I can apply to my own writing?
Reading in this way puts us on the fast track toward excellent writing.
Some of you may be thinking, well, that’s great for you, but I don’t have time to read. So I want to close with a few quick tips for making habit a reading:
1. Grab every moment.
If you’re waiting in line at the store, pull out a poetry book. If you are driving in your car, listen to an audio book. If you typically scroll through social media at night, pick up a book instead. Your brain and your eyes will thank you.
2. Find opportunities to read with others.
Start a book club. Read with your family. Make a goal for how many books you’ll read this year, and tell someone, or, better yet, drag them into it, too. All of this can become accountability, so the next time you reach for your smartphone, a little voice in your head might say, “Maybe you should read instead.” If you’re my husband, that voice would be mine.
3. Reward yourself for your efforts.
Sometimes, when we’re not used to reading anymore, our attention is hard to hold. So reward yourself for the days you spend 30 minutes or more reading. Build up your attention span. It can be done. You just have to practice, it, like everything else.
I believe that reading holds the keys to a better, kinder society that could even eradicate poverty, which is why I choose to write more books. But that’s a story for another day.
For now, work on your habit of reading, and watch your writing skills flourish.
“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”