Reading to Write

How should you read if you want to be a writer? Especially if you want to be a better writer? I got thinking about this as I read How to Read Books You’ll Never Talk About in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s blog open vein, write story. ADJ is crackling and opinionated and always worth your time. Here she gets to the roots of reading, the joy. Yes, we need to slog through some works so that we have a sense of possibilities and so we can (joyfully) expand our intellectual palates. (My wife found a rule: read 100 pages minus your age of any new book before you give yourself permission to quit.)

Anyway, ADJ puts the emphasis where it belongs then provides a telling story of the power of BS. Reading with an academic gun to your head does spoil things and fighting back with creative “allusions,” as she puts it, seems just. I absolutely believe in reading for joy. In fact, since 911, I’ve restructured my own approach to writing to put joy (or fun) at the top. But, if you write, your reading is part of your growth as a writer. So you need to do more that just read for fun.

I had a wise teacher who said The New Yorker solves your problems every week. His point was that writers constantly struggle with making material fresh, with expressing emotion through action, with pacing, with engaging readers, with explaining complex information, with using “just the right word.” Any place you find good writing, you’ll start to see your solutions. That brings up my first two points of guidance:

    • Read attentively all the time: don’t just blow through for the plot. Really read every word. And when you notice the author has achieved something extraordinary, go back and reread. This may make you a much slower reader, but the advantage comes when you write. It is amazing how often I find myself with a problem and am able to go to the exact book on my shelf and pull out a great approach. Even if it won’t be my approach, it gives me confidence that success can be had.
    • Articulate your problems before you sit down to read: since writers are always reading something, you can come across great lessons by chance. But this is only likely to happen if you have made your problem explicit. Right now, I am working on immediacy in my writing. When I experience it, I go back to see how the author made that happen in me.

      Besides having fun and solving problems, reading different works by different authors is important. The fastest way to think (and write) out of the box is to get into someone else’s strange and possibly irritating box with them.

        • Read things you don’t want to read or that weird people tell you to read: if you just read what your friends recommend, you are on the road to groupthink.

          I think it’s also important to read “bad” stuff. If you are part of a writers’ group, you’ll come across plenty of that. Finding ways to critique it will make you aware in a special way of your own failings and your growth. But don’t pick up a red pen until you have read the whole work. Suspend judgment and give the author a chance.

            • Read bad stuff sympathetically.

              This isn’t just fair, it’s useful. I often find that what was “wrong” really has a purpose. And it sometimes provides amazing insights. so what are your “rules”?


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