Monthly Archives: February 2013

Reading for writing

Aloha! (My love and good wishes to you – Hawaii).

 Last time, I waxed lyrical about the locations and times we choose to do our writing (poor lyrical, he’ll catch his death of cold). Today, I want to rub some gently-soothing balm on lyrical and talk about reading.

 Yes, reading.

 Hang on, some cry; isn’t this supposed to be a writing blog? Yes, it is – which is why I want to address this often overlooked problem that afflicts a lot of would-be writers (and even full-time published writers – success doesn’t necessarily equate with quality).

 There are an infinite number of reasons why reading makes you a better writer, but here are the most important ones:

  1. It shows you what writing looks like on the page. To your right, ladies and gentlemen, you will see a fine example of properly-used punctuation. To your left, easy-to-read paragraph spacing. Wow!
  2. Writing is as much a craft as woodwork or composing music. You wouldn’t expect to be a great carpenter or reel off a symphony if you’ve never seen a cabinet or listened to music.
  3. It exposes you to different ways of tackling the same problems. Stephen King has to worry about setting the scene just as much as you do, so observing his problem-solving techniques will give you greater appreciation of how to do it yourself.
  4. It exposes you to stories and events outside of your own experience. If money worries prevent that six-month research tour of India you’ve been drooling over, then read about it from everyone else who has been there. Better research makes for better writing.

Let’s look at these points in a little more detail. If you normally use a word processor to write, reading from a physical page gives fresh objectivity to the words you’ve been attached to for so long. The same is true of your writing style; reading books by other people broadens your knowledge of which styles work well and which don’t. That font you’re so fond of might look great on a webpage, but is a recipe for instant migraine in a full-length novel.

Secondly, reading exposes you to the very best – and worse – that writers have to offer. So many people I’ve run into who claim to love writing also seem scandalised by the idea of reading. These people invariably tend to be the ones who jot down whatever comes into their heads, only to parade it as ‘writing’. It’s not; it’s just words. A real writer is one who knows and practises the difference – who crafts those words into cohesive prose. Reading builds up a store of subliminal knowledge, both factual (‘hey, did you know camels can shut their nostrils?’) and technical (‘oh, so that’s how you use a semi-colon!’). You can attend all the creative writing classes in the universe and still know nothing about the craft if you don’t spend time and take pleasure in reading.

The third and fourth points are even more self-explanatory. To read is to learn, even if it’s only on a subliminal level. The kicker for writers is that this background absorption must also be analysed in great depth. Only when you start questioning what you read (how does this author make me sympathise with their lead character, why does this location make me nostalgic), can you start to understand how these writing tools function and how to use them yourself.

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There are, of course, a whole range of books that are specifically aimed at teaching you the craft of writing. Sol Stein and James N. Frey are two good authors on the subject that I’d recommend, but ultimately, they should seek to only bring forth into your conscious mind what you’ve subconsciously known all along. Why? Because you’ll have met these techniques in a thousand incarnations already, by being an active reader.

If you are serious about wanting to make writing your career, you should be prepared to read a LOT; in bed, on the bus, on the loo, in the waiting room and everywhere in between (though draw the line at operating machinery or flying aircraft). Whether you have five minutes or five hours, grab a book and get reading. It doesn’t even matter what kind of book you choose; a writer of sci-fi adventure will benefit as much from a history of Chinese cooking as they will from instruction manuals for Martian rovers.

It’s extraordinary what the unexpected can teach us.

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Reading for writing by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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