Want to Be a Better Writer? Become a Better Reader
Every craft takes practice. Think about it - the best athletes spend hours on the court, the ice, the field. Gourmet chefs take days, weeks, months to perfect a single recipe. So it stands to reason that in order to become a better writer, you should practice by writing every day. Ray Bradbury said as much to an audience of college students at the University of Arizona in the late 80s. [As a blogger, writing daily also really helps with your SEO and "Google juice."] However, it takes more than just practice to become a better writer. It also takes immersion in reading the writing of others ― and not just the same sorts of things you write.
We've all heard about writing styles, but have you ever stopped to evaluate your reading style? Chances are that if you’re a writer, you already are a pretty good reader. But chances are that you also tend to stick with one or two primary genres. Do you prefer modern fiction? Tend always toward sci-fi? Were the last 25 books you purchased real estate and/or business books? Shelves filled with sports bios and autobiographies? Floor, desk, and bedside table strewn with self-help literature? There’s nothing at all wrong with reading a lot in one subject ― however, you will stifle your growth as a writer if you fail to read beyond that single genre. If you really want to improve your writing, you've got to be willing to read across multiple genres, voraciously consuming anything you can get your hands on.
Yes — this also means reading the stuff you don’t like. Here's a thought: take some time and try to figure out why you don’t like it. Is it too technical? Is it the style that bothers you? Do you find the voice or characters problematic? The further you study the work that troubles you, the more likely you’ll find yourself either growing to like it, or at least developing an appreciation for it. At the very least, you will learn how to avoid doing the same things in your own writing.
Studies have shown that fewer than 10 percent of all people who buy books ever read past the first chapter. What kind of reader are you? Do you tend to have several books going at one time? Do you read in spurts, one after another for several months, then taking a complete reading sabbatical for a while? Do you find yourself so hungry for reading material that you will literally read the back of the cereal box if the newspaper arrives late on a weekend morning?
To begin improving your writing, let everything you read influence you. You obviously want to read books, journals, and literature within your industry and allied trades. You also want to read your competitors’ blogs, articles, and other materials, as well as regularly attending industry workshops and seminars. Consider keeping a journal with notes from your readings. When you come across things that particularly speak to you, jot them down, or record the thoughts and ideas they trigger for you.
If you write nonfiction, read fiction — good fiction you can begin to model. In her inaugural novel, The Good Mother, Sue Miller described a scene in which the main character cut her leg shaving. For me, that single, tiny detail gave authenticity to the entire story. Nelson Demille, in Cathedral, achieves a similar effect when describing the background characters whose necks eventually began to ache from craning up for hours at a time to watch construction of the magnificent church.
Whether you enjoy fiction or not, find and read good stories so that you can become better at telling good stories. As Internet guru Joe Vitale teaches, the most hypnotic writing always tells a story. Even your nonfiction should connect emotionally with your readers because it tells them a story that grabs their attention and draws them in.
Mimic the styles and phrases that appeal to you in others’ writing. Practice using them yourself until you feel confident and comfortable and can make them your own. Explore a wide range of books for design ideas. If you are in the process of landing a traditional publisher, check out books similar to the one you’re writing for possible publishing contacts.
Venturing into a bookstore can be an intimidating experience for virtually every aspiring writer, but it doesn’t have to be. In all likelihood, you won’t be the first to tackle your subject; unless you’re on the cutting edge of medical or scientific research, your idea probably won’t be brand new. That in no way implies that you shouldn’t write it. Human beings learn through repetition, meaning that most of us need to hear the same messages again and again before we finally assimilate them. So don’t worry that there are other titles similar to yours on the store shelves. Ever notice when you purchase a book on Amazon how they give you a list of other books selected by readers who purchased the book you bought? Ever notice how frequently they’re on the SAME subject?
Don’t let the vast numbers of pre-existing volumes scare you. Don’t let others’ good writing intimidate you. Rather, allow them to inspire you. You can do it. You have a message to share, something important to say, and it’s essential that you convey that information to the world. What is your purpose? Your passion? If you aren’t sharing your knowledge and your expertise, you are welching on your agreement for being in this life in the first place.
Get out there. Read more. And become a better writer.
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