There is more to writing than writing. There’s directed reading.

Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash

I see a lot of focus on quantity/quality, tips, and tricks, but that’s not neccesarily the best way to learn about writing

I have been learning how to write for decades. I started years before I got serious and became a professional. And there is a major factor missing in many of the well-meaning articles published here and elsewhere about writing and becoming a writer. That factor is reading.

Contrary to much of what you read about writing, writing alone is not going to make you a truly fine, compelling, and readable writer. It is half the formula. The other half is deep, directed reading that helps you learn how great writers structure things, how they discipline themselves, and how they use style while avoiding cliche forms. I use the phrase ‘directed reading’ because I refer to reading the kind of work you aspire to, or more accurately, the level of work you aspire to, whether it is fiction, non-fiction, business writing, or self-help/pop culture writing.

Reading, as a writer

Even so-called serious writers have their guilty pleasure reading. A Booker-nominated novelist may have a love for murder mysteries or thrillers. A renowned historian may like romance novels. This is reading for pleasure. Reading as a writer is a different thing.

Earlier in this piece I said I’d started training to write before I really did any serious writing. I was a serious, directed reader from a young age. I became interested in novels and started with the twentieth century classics by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Woolf, et al. But I went further. I read their bios, interviews on techniques, and the work of their lesser contemporaries. This gave me context for where their work came from and what they sought to accomplish. This practice, which continued through high school and college, helped me understand the difference between really fine writing and average writing. I did write a novel in college, which I no longer have and which was absurdly derivative to the point of comedy. Because I was so well read, I knew how bad it was but persevered to see if I could finish something. Eventually, being young, I got diverted by another creative form, music. I did not get back to writing till later and then I needed to make money to justify the time spent, so I learned non-fiction and copywriting. But I kept reading all through these distractions.

Ask Stephen King (and everyone else)

There are a lot of references to Stephen King’s On Writing as a primer, for very good reasons. And I concur that it is a very good guide (and a great memoir, which it doesn’t get enough credit for). But nearly all references seem to focus on his advice on technique and perseverance, when in fact this is only half of his advice. The other half is to read voraciously and widely. In fact, King includes a reading list of several hundred books at the end of On Writing (his focus is on long form fiction but you could assemble a similar list for other writing genres). If you go out and search for interviews with the writers you admire, when they talk about process they inevitably talk about reading, with equal weight. They know their peers and they respect the great ones, in part because they have read them first for pleasure or education and then as writers.

Writers on writing

Writers love to write about writing. It’s always been that way, it’s in our nature. Usually we are writing about our own experiences with it because we learn from writing it out. I know, I do it and publish some of it here. When I first got into my ‘real’ first novel, I was mystified by certain things about the process which had a mysterious quality to them. I was not a plotter, I was letting the story carry me along with each day’s word allotment (800–900). As a result characters began doing unexpected things and I wondered if this was normal. So, I used my directed reading habits to find out. I looked for process interviews with writers I admired. Two specifically were Michael Ondaatje and Haruki Murakami.* I found interviews online. In both cases they said that their most well-known books started with little more than a mental image. In the case of Ondaatje’s masterpiece The English Patient, he simply had an image of a nurse and a bandaged burn patient in a villa in Italy, as World War Two wound down. As any reader of the book or the excellent film adaptation knows, this is an intricately plotted story with many moving parts. Murakami said much the same thinga.

This directed research helped me relax into the cadence of my writing and let it go where it wanted to. And the end result is quite tightly plotted with developed characters and tells a decent, strange story. I never would have finished it, and my current project, without my directed reading.

*For a writer working on the strange process of writing a novel, these interviews are gold, because they illuminate the processes and struggles and illuminations these authors go through while writing. Non-fiction and various genres all offer similar reading resources.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

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