Read Better, Write Better

british library ironworkFor the rare writer who asks “how do I become better?” I believe reading difficult books, harder than we are used to, can make us better writers.

Over the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to critique works by other writers and to have them critique my work. Now, critiquing work requires a gift I’m not sure I have, except to say that I’m learning to critique what is on the page, not what I wish was one the page. That realization is for another day.

What I want to share today is a recent observation I made. The quality of a person’s writing, I have observed, relates to the quality of their reading. The best feedback I received was from writers who wrote with a strong voice and well. While I’d like to think I could read Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown for the rest of my days, I cannot if I want to see my work published in the likes of AGNI or Brevity or if I fancy winning the Pulitzer (a perfectly laudable goal, I think). I must read harder and harder works to become a better writer.

I continually write myself into a corner. Huddling there, confused and deflated, I realize my vision has exceed my capability as a writer. This is simply another way to say I need to learn new tools. To write myself out of the corner, perhaps I need to learn how to write in the second person or how to use found material or newspaper headlines or how diction changes the voice of a character. With these new tools, I’ve solved a writing problem. Whether they stay in the final draft is less important than I have found a method to express what is inside of me.

Thus to get better as a writer, I’ve had to get better as reader. I’m quite slow as a reader and miss common cultural references. But thankfully there is the interwebz, and I refer to it often when reading.

This past year, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and the 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos have provided tools I needed to put the right words on the page in the right way at exactly the right time.
The act of doing this is something akin to having an itch scratched. How many of us have written a scene or chapter or entire essay, typed the last period or question mark or exclamation point, all the while knowing that we’ve not quite said what we want to say?

Reading better helps us become more exact, gain confidence in our writing and increase our chances of landing a plum publishing contract.

How has reading improved your writing?

2 Comments

  1. i would agree that reading more challenging books makes my writing better. However, as a genre writer (as compared to a literary fiction writer) I find that I must read the classics of my genre, which may or may not be “better” in technique, but hopefully will be challenging nonetheless. By this I mean challenging in terms of challenging my understanding of where my community has come from historically and how it has developed into the lesbian fiction that it is now. Some of the romance written in that community today is horrible and some are gems, just as you would find the same in the broader heterosexual romance field. I have the added challenge and gem, I believe, of a younger genre that can trace it’s history and incorporate a great deal of community history into the body of a “non-fluff” romance. Perhaps I write more challenging fiction than I originally assumed, in which case it is essential I read “better” and better books, to improve my writing, so that my craft honors the content of my story.

    1. “Perhaps I write more challenging fiction than I originally assumed, in which case it is essential I read “better” and better books, to improve my writing, so that my craft honors the content of my story.”

      This is quite right, I think. Reading better can help all of us tell better stories, whatever better means for us. Literary fiction has some real stinkers. Genre fiction some fantastic gems. (Which causes me to quote Quincy Jones’ statement about the two types of music he listened to, “good and bad music.”)

      And I agree it is absolutely essential to know the history of one’s genre (literary, romance, mystery) to understand how both stories and conceptions of community and language have grown and changed.

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