It is that simple. And it is that difficult.
If you really want to become a better writer than you are today, the best advice that I can give you is to read. This is not an overnight remedy. It is a life long program of change that will develop your skill as a writer like no other tip, tool, or technique.
It is also a tried-and-true strategy. Every semester, every seminar, every break out session, I have 2-3 writers that immediately rise to the top. These folks have the gift; they have an instinct for language; they are inspired. And they are avid readers. Coincidence? I think not.
As an intellectual, I’ve struggled over the chicken-and-the-egg aspect of this question. Are people with a gift for language attracted to the written word? And would those people be fairly good at writing anyway? Or, is there something about the act of reading itself that can make you a better writer?
Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. But language is definitely a skill, and it can be practiced, honed, and improved—no matter what our original talent, gift, or inclination. Here are a few tips to make your reading time more productive and improve your efforts as a writer.
Be an active reader. Flipping through a magazine or losing ourselves in a trashy romance is an indulgence. In those moments, we let ourselves go. Physically we sprawl out in our chair, on our couch, or across our bed. We may suck on a chocolate bar or crunch on a potato chip, sip a glass of wine or slurp at a hot cocoa. And our brain is set loose for the day.
But reading for the language is different. It’s like the difference between a phone call with a close friend and a business meeting with your partner. The active reader imagines him or herself in conversation with the author or the characters. Picture yourself in the setting. React to the situation. Allow both your emotions and your intellect to be aroused. And talk back, which brings me to my next point…
…keep a reading journal. How many times have you read a novel, then two weeks later when someone asked you about it you failed to remember even the slightest detail of the plot? That’s because you didn’t write it down. We spend so much time making lists of all the things we need to do. Shouldn’t we spend half that energy recording the things we’ve done?
That means summarizing what we’ve read. I started keeping a reader’s journal when I was studying for my Master’s degree. And I can’t tell you how rewarding it is now to go back into my filing cabinets and flip through those spiral notebooks to see all the books I’ve read since then.
It also saves me from keeping those books on my shelves. And it makes me more comfortable with the idea of an e-reader, because I have a tangible, browsable record of the characters and plot. And since I’m a visual learner, I make quick sketches of family trees and maps of particularly complicated settings, travels, or plot sequences.
Finally, I write in the margins. I can’t imagine having a conversation with someone and not talking back. Authors are no different. As far as I’m concerned, they have no right to just put their words on the page and leave me with the consequences. Right back atcha babe is my motto. But if you feel uncomfortable doing that, if you hate stockpiling old newspapers, or if you borrow books from the library, keep your “marginal” comments in your journal. Just be sure to copy down enough of the context so you remember what inspired your own thoughts.
Read in disciplines other than your own. Innovation, inspiration, imagination. Thinking out of the box, getting out of our comfort zone, letting go. Right brain thinking, allowing the free flow of ideas. Whatever the buzz words are today, real intelligence comes from knowing more about the world than your own small niche.
And that translates into a greater ability to articulate. Whenever we can learn something about a field other than our own, we create a synergy between our cell and that other cell. That starts a buzz, and then we can start communicating. Knowing how things work, seeing the big picture gives us a greater understanding of our audience and helps us to create context. It also allows us to create metaphors, which are the most effective means of communication.
So this afternoon, become a better writer. Pick up a book, grab a newspaper, or find a great article on the internet. And read. Tell your boss it’s on doctor’s orders.