Reading: A key to becoming a better writer

As you strive to become a better writer, the  activity that should be second to practicing your craft is reading. For most of us, being gripped by a story was the pathway that led to stories of our own. We were in awe of the way words could move us into a new world. We could hang out with characters we admired and live in places we’d never visit. We carried books in our hands, in our purses, and at the bottom of our back packs, so that a story was never far away. We longed to do what these authors did and vowed someday that we would.

Reading was important to us then. It inspired us. There’s no reason to let that end, now that we are writers ourselves. Put away the writing pen and spend a portion of each day reading, always for pleasure but also for learning.

Read to develop your style

A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb a half a dozen top-flight authors every year (F. Scott Fitzgerald).

Reading is like a history lesson on the craft of writing. You learn how language is used to tell a story or report information. You pick up writing skills as you see how successful authors work their craft. You begin to favor one style or genre over another. Most importantly, you begin to write in a style that becomes your own, one that has developed from reading millions of words through the works of a variety of authors.

Read for inspiration

The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading in order to write; a man will turn over half a library in order to make one book (Samuel Johnson).

That’s a wonderful visual. Imagine that behind you is a pile of all the books you’ve read. In front of you is your writing desk. Besides your unique life experiences, you have literary memories stored in your writer’s tool box and available for use. You experienced memorable characters and fictional locations. Scenes and stories made you laugh and cry. You read a plot development with twists and turns; the beautiful description of a single flower or a time of day; an unusual name; an action that haunts you. You’ve been touched and inspired by what you’ve read and will use that to write memorable passages of your own.

Read regularly and with variety

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body (Richard Steele).

The technology that is available to us today leaves no lack of reading material. We have access to libraries located around the world via websites, online newspapers and magazines, and instant downloads of newly published books for our Kindles. Brick-and-mortar libraries and bookstores are still in business and offer the hard-copy feel that many of us still enjoy.

Whichever route you choose, your reading choices should include a range of styles and genres, fiction and nonfiction, articles and essays. Each will broaden your world and help your own writing to be better as you include what you’ve learned. Here’s what my reading habit looks like:

  • Read the newspaper daily. I clip and file articles with topics that relate to a story I’m writing. I also clip obituaries that include fascinating and inspiring life stories. I keep up with what’s happening in the world and how people are impacted by this. Some of this makes its way into my stories.
  • Read outside my genre. I read a legal thriller last month. It was a trick to find an author for my tastes, but I finally chose John Grisham because I wanted to see how a fellow Sunday School teacher and mega-popular author writes in this genre.
  • Read a popular author. I’m reading Anne Tyler, for the first time, to investigate her style and enjoy a good story.
  • Read a variety of blogs. I read outside of the writing community. For example, I read food blogs that contain beautiful photos, stories, and descriptions. I read blogs that include political and religious views that are different from my own, and blogs written by cat lovers. All of them give me thoughts to introduce in my writing.
  • Read classics. I subscribe to “Story of the Week,” which sends a classic American work to my reader every Monday. The story for this week is from the autobiography of Civil War General Lew Wallace. It includes one description of war horror that will stay with me for a while.
  • Read books for children. I work at an elementary school, so children’s books are always within reach. Reading them gives me examples of how a child might think and talk, and I can use this in any type of work.
  • Read the Bible. This is personal for me as it is my manual for life. I read it daily. It’s also an amazing collection of literary styles.

Here’s a quote that I hope encourages you to get reading and get writing:

“I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” ~ Toni Morrison

Question: How much time do you set aside for your reading habit?


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4 thoughts on “Reading: A key to becoming a better writer

  1. Hi Darla,
    What science fiction book did you choose? I recommend Sphere by Michael Crichton; Farenheight 451 by Ray Bradbury; Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson, which was made into a pretty good movie in 1980 starring Christopher Reeve. Matheson wrote a lot for The Twilight Zone series, so anything by him is pretty good.

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    1. Hi, Aiyana,
      I am on the librarian’s list to get Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (I work at a school). I was thinking about F-451, but I wanted something older. Matheson — I just read that he wrote “Duel,” that great piece made into a TV movie by Spielberg. Thanks for the recommendations!

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  2. I definitely agree we need to read a lot and read widely to be better writers. I love to read and am working on stretching my reading choices. Trying different genres. I almost always carry a book or my kindle with me so I’m never caught without something to read when the downtime hits. 😀

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