The Number One Way to Become a Better Writer
I had to get up at 5AM this morning for a conference call, so I padded to my office in the dark, rubbed the wrinkles out of my face and turned the computer on. I was barely awake, but I got through the call then checked my messages and responded to email.
Since it was still dark, I thought I could get another hour of sleep, so at about 6:30AM I went back to bed. Of course, there was no way to fall back asleep even though I was exhausted and had only slept about four hours.
I don’t know if this has happened to you — I’m guessing it has, but I just couldn’t fall back asleep. My thoughts bounced from one worry to another: writing I needed to do, grading my student’s blogs and podcasts, what to make for dinner (I’d like to try something vegetarian tonight). But eventually, my thoughts returned to writing. Not just writing, but to books.
My thinking looked like this:
· That book I was reading last night is good, but I don’t know why the author is giving me so much backstory and history of her parents when the story is about her finding the son she gave up for adoption. I’m losing interest.
· Maybe I’m too tired when I go to bed.
· But that didn’t happen with The Taste of Sugar (the book I read the previous week).
· I’m glad the book club chose that book. It was good.
· Shit, I need to order the next book. I can’t remember which one they chose.
· I need to finish reading the book on Buddhism and learn how to relax, then maybe I’d be able to sleep.
Here is the beauty of being exhausted and not having much control over my stream of thoughts — in the uncontrolled randomness of ideas, my mind created a pattern.
I came to a final thought before I jumped out of bed and came to write this blog. What I concluded was that I read a lot, and my reading is wide and varied. This leads me to the point I want to make today.
The best way to become a stronger writer, the number one thing you can do to increase your skills as a writer is to read. When I was a 19-years-old a college student, my English professor said that writers do not read enough. In fact, what he said was that if you think you read a lot, you don’t. No matter how many books you read each year, each month, each week, you don’t read enough.
Why is that?
Well, my belief now, as mature writer with years of practice, is that we are not just learning about craft and expanding our vocabulary. We are not just absorbing great writing by reading it. That’s what I thought my professor meant, and maybe that was his logic. But the real reason I believe it’s crucial to read voraciously is because we learn what type of writer we want or do not want to be from the books we read. We learn more about ourselves by reading other people’s books than when we write our own.
Let me explain it this way. When my brilliant college professor told us to read, I went and picked up various books. One was a spy novel that took place during the cold war between the old Soviet Union and the U.S. It was interesting. I enjoyed it. But I knew I would never write that type of book. Why? I’m capable of writing anything I want, so it wasn’t the topic. And it wasn’t that I lacked interest in the spy novels. They’re fun! It wasn’t that I couldn’t plot the twist and turns. I actually find them a bit predictable, so I could write them if I wanted to.
The reason I knew I didn’t want to write this type of book, even as a 19-year-old who was just starting out, was that I didn’t really care about the characters in that spy novel. I could not get emotionally attached to the characters. I knew the good guy would win, so I wasn’t worried about him. And the character was forgettable. After the story was over, I went on to the next story and didn’t think about that book again until today.
This told me something important about the kind of books I needed to write. I must write deeply emotional books and I must care about the characters. If I like to read those types of books, I will enjoy writing them as well.
Two or three years later, I picked up Twice Loved by LaVyrle Spencer. I could not put the book down. This historical novel is about a woman whose husband goes out to sea and does not return. She and others believed he had died at sea. His best friend was there to comfort the widow and heroine of the story, and they ended up falling in love. When her husband suddenly reappeared years later, the characters had a mess to deal with. And the readers had questions. Who will she choose? What will they do? I was one of those readers and I had to know. I cared deeply about her choice. And when I closed the book after reading the last page, I knew that if I could write characters the way LaVyrle Spencer did, I would be huge success. I’m still working on that, but the point is that I learned more about me than I did about Spencer and her writing style.
I ended up reading every book Spencer wrote, and definitely studying her writing style to learn how she sucked readers like me into the story, but I never would have done that if I had not discovered her and her books.
After that, I did not choose to read books only in the romance genre. I read all kinds of books. I decided my crazy professor wasn’t so crazy after all. I needed to read more. I read biographies, books on religion, self-improvement, How To books, mysteries, adventure novels, and literary novels as well. Each type of book helped me to understand myself better.
As a bonus for being avid readers, writers will also learn to improve their skills. I learned better pacing from adventure novels. I learned character psychology from How To books on relationships. Buddhism hasn’t made it into any my novels yet, but it has influenced me as a person and that’s fantastic too.
So, read everything. If you are reading this blog, you are a reader already, but to paraphrase my college professor, you’re not reading enough.