“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” – Stephen King, On Writing
Want to improve your writing? It all begins with reading well. And I’m not just talking about reading instructional books. The simple act of sitting down with a good novel can teach you just as much about writing as attending a class on English composition. But your eyes and ears must be open. You’ve got to read with intention… Maybe even with a pen in hand and a notepad at your side.
Not that passive reading won’t leave you with benefits. Everything you read will help you in your quest to become the best writer you can be. But we multiply those benefits by reading actively.
So, here are three practical benefits that reading can give your writing.
Improve Your Writing By… Honing the fundamentals of writing
After graduating from college, I taught high school English for four years. During that time, I could tell which students read from those that didn’t every time I assigned an essay. Those who enjoyed reading spelled better and could write more effective prose.
Those who complained about how much they “hated reading” were often the ones who struggled to put more than two or three words together.
This is one reason reading is so important for writers. When we read, we pick up new vocabulary, rhythms and cadences, and interesting syntactical choices – without even thinking about it. It’s like putting fertilizer on a freshly planted seed. It multiplies growth and leads to deeper roots. In other words, reading helps us understand our craft in a way that few other things can.
And if this happens without thought, how much more effective would it be if we read with greater intention? Can you imagine how much better you might become at putting together engaging sentences if you actively noted the way good authors write?
See, this is the reason that reading, and reading well, are such valuable skills for young (and old) writers.
If you want to learn how to read well, check out Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. It’s a must-read for every writer because it teaches the skills needed to really read.
Improve Your Writing By…Considering different perspectives.
Every story is different. And the circumstances of each tale can require different approaches. Third-person omniscient narrators work for some stories. On the other hand, first-person narrators are the best for others. Sometimes a strict chronological order’s needed. But then there are times when you may want to throw in a flashback or two. Some stories should be straight prose narratives, others might be better as a collection of letters or diary entries.
As inexperienced writers, it’s easy to fall in the trap of always writing with a particular style and from a particular perspective. It’s easy to assume that every story must be told from a first-person or third-person perspective (whichever you have liked in the past). In other words, it’s easy to get in a rut.
But reading widely helps us stay out of these ruts. It opens our minds to methods and styles that we might never have considered on our own. And it doesn’t just open your eyes to the broad structure of your story. It can do far more than that…
Improve Your Writing By… Cultivating inspiration!
Think of Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked. It sparked a movement of alternative takes on familiar fairytales.
Who knows what styles or methods you might come across as you read? And it’s not just a matter of finding something you can copy. Surely we’ve all been reading something and experienced our brains making a random connection that leads us down a rabbit-hole and shoves us into an idea that’s unrelated – but which intrigues us.
The more you read, the more likely you’ll stumble into those random ideas. And the more likely one of those random ideas will point you to something genuinely great.
Again, it’s important to remember that we multiply the power of this when we read with intention. As ideas hit you, write them down! Then, when you feel you’ve hit a roadblock go back and review those notes for inspiration. Who knows where it may lead you?
Build a library of ideas.
In his book How to Read Literature like a Professor, Thomas Foster writes, “literature, as the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye observed, grows out of other literature; we should not be surprised to find, then, that it also looks like other literature. As you read, it may pay to remember this: there is no such thing as a wholly original work of literature,” (p.29).
Masters of writing have always borrowed from other writers. For instance, think of all the books rooted in events, ideas, and characters found in the Bible: Paradise Lost, the Divine Comedy, The Brothers Karamazov, etc.
Reading widely is like building a library of ideas. You store all kinds of things in this library: Archetypes, character flaws, plot points, etc. When you sit down to write your own stories, you’ll draw from that library without even thinking about it.
And though this happens automatically, you can improve your writing even more by intentionally keeping lists of ideas. By doing this, you’ll turn your unorganized, ephemeral, unintentional library of ideas into a tangible library of ideas.
Create an Evernote folder that includes categories such as plot, character, setting, and miscellaneous. Then, as you read, note powerful examples of these things and create notes where you can store these ideas. The next time you lose steam while writing, return to this folder and draw inspiration from the different stories you’ve read in the past.
Put it into practice!
Listen, don’t move on from this article without action! Make a commitment to improve your writing, starting today!
Take a moment to create an Evernote folder entitled ‘Writing Ideas from Reading.’ Then, create subfolders for ‘setting’, ‘moral/philosophy’, ‘plot’, ‘character’, ‘style’, ‘interesting phrases’, etc.
And from now on, read with intention. When you come across a vividly described setting, make a note and drop it in the ‘setting’ folder. When an author uses a character flaw that resonates with you, put it in your ‘character’ folder. Develop a library of ideas and styles and methods. Then, the next time you’re in need of an idea, you’ll have a whole library to draw from. Learn from the masters and put their lessons to use, starting today.