Reading to Write.

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One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was so simple I almost missed it. While at lunch with a friend and writing mentor, he offered this: If you want be a good writer, you need to read good writers. As an aspiring writer back then, I took this to heart. I began to read, not merely through the lens of the typical “reader,” but with the eyes of an author. Years later, this has proven to be one of the most essential ingredients I have found to good writing, yet one that is all too often overlooked by aspiring writers.

Reading needs to be a vehicle not merely for personal enjoyment and growth, but one of professional growth as well. When we immerse ourselves in good writing, we are exposed to a wealth of training and inspiration as authors. When we encounter quality writing, seeing how authors push themselves and their craft, we are pushed as well to explore our creative limits. It challenges us to be better, to work harder at the craft we love so much. Seeing how an author crafts an idea, turns a phrase, develops a connection with the reader, or creates an emotional environment through their words—all these serve as inspiration and motivation to deepen our own writing toolbox.

Just as great musicians are students of great music, so great writers are students of great writing. With this in mind, here are a few ideas when it comes to reading in order to write:

Develop a rhythm to your reading. As with developing any discipline, a regularly scheduled time and place to read is essential. For some, reading in the morning before the beginning of the day is best, others find that nighttime seems to offer a better rhythm. Some writers like to read directly before writing, as a way of preparing the mind to enter into places of creativity and focus. The key is to find a time and place where your mind can enter into a specific rhythm, one that allows for concentration and productivity.

Read on various levels. One of the curses of being an author, as my wife continually points out, is that it is often difficult to “turn off” the writer side of me. While this may be true, the reality is that good writers need to develop the skill of reading on various levels. Not only do I want to read a piece as a reader, I also want to read the piece as an editor would. I also want to read the piece as a fellow writer would. I want to sense what the reader feels and thinks. I want to critically look at the piece as a whole—what is the flow of the piece like? How does the piece move the reader? How does the author construct their thoughts? How does the author create tension? How do they build their argument? How does the author wordsmith or use sentence construction to make their point or move the narrative along?

Read authors that are in the same genre you are writing. It is always a good idea to read other authors who are working in the same genre as you. This allows you to see how other authors deal with the constraints of the genre, as well as push the limits of that specific genre. While you are not reading in order to mimic or copy someone’s style, you are reading in order to be exposed to other’s creativity and expression, to allow their work to draw out your best work. What you will find over time is that as with great music, there will always be signs of influence upon a writer. As you think about your own writing, who is it that has been an influence upon you?

Read authors that are NOT in the same genre you are writing. It is also a good idea to read people who are not within your same genre as a way of refreshing your mind with great writing in general. Seeing how authors have honed their craft serves as an inspiration for you to spend the time and energy to make your writing be the very best it can be. As a fiction writer, you would be amazed by how helpful reading a great biography can be in helping you think about plot line development. The reverse is also true—biographers can learn much from reading excellent fiction.

Always, always read classics. They are called “classics” for a reason. These works have stood the test of time, remaining as essential pieces of literature for future generations. Growing up, many of us read them in school. As we move on in life we need to keep our finger on the pulse of the classics as they show us writing at its highest level. While I have dabbled in reading classics in the past, recently I’ve felt the need to delve into classics on a deeper level. As several my kids are currently in high school, I’ve chosen to read what they are reading. First up? The Odyssey.

That’s about it for this week. Next week, we’ll be looking at how to find your voice in writing. If you have any thoughts or additional ideas, I’d love to hear them. Email me at mike@samizdatcreative.com.

// Mike DeVries

 

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