Writers Talk About Writing
Five Ways to be a Better Reader... and Writer
One of my three children is dyslexic, but I taught the other two to read myself. It wasn't hard, but here's the deal — what I taught them wasn't so much reading as it was decoding. That is, I explained to them the various sounds that all the letters in the alphabet represent. For example, the letter e can sometimes sound like "eh" as in pen. But it can also sound like "ee" as in we.
That said there's another type of reading that's even more important. It often isn't taught in high school, and certainly isn't widely practiced. When Samuel Johnson said, "One of the amusements of idleness is reading without the fatigue of close attention," he wasn't so much endorsing what I like to call beachside reading, as arguing against it. In other words, he was suggesting that real reading is real work.
But it can also be fun. Here are five ways in which you can read with close attention to improve your own writing:
1) Choose your material carefully. A certain percentage of your reading (at least 30 percent) should be work by authors you hold in high esteem. And re-reading is definitely encouraged! I like well-plotted literary fiction with believable characters and non-fiction in the style of Malcolm Gladwell. Your tastes will be different — but that's nothing to complain about. Select work by writers you like a lot because you're going to be spending a whole bunch of time with them.
2) Remember that all writing has a beginning, a middle and an ending. Identify these areas in the piece of writing you're studying (reading) and write a one-paragraph summary of each. If your piece of writing is a book, then write a similar one-paragraph summary about the beginning, middle and ending of each chapter. You might want to consider doing this as a mindmap. If that interests you, check out how Stephen Pierce uses mindmapping as a reading aid.
3) Photocopy a few pages of the book or article and take a coloured highlighter and mark all the verbs. Study them. Learn from them. Good writers use verbs with the precision of vascular surgeons. Then, use a different coloured pen and mark all the similes and metaphors. Ask yourself, 'what can I learn from this?'
4) Take a few paragraphs or a few pages that you especially like and type them up yourself. The point of this exercise is so you internalize the style and cadences of the author. Just as you become what you eat (soft and doughy if your taste runs to donuts) you also become what you read. If you read only marketing drivel or cheap crime thrillers then your own writing will start to sound that way. I'm not suggesting you need to read the classics (nor am I suggesting all crime thrillers are cheap) — you just need to read excellent writing.
5) Finally, take the section you've typed up and run it through readability stats. If you don't have the stats set up in Word, then simply go to this readability site (ignore the slightly garbled English at the top) and copy and paste in the text. Then hit "process." What grade level is the writing? What's the average number of words per sentence? What's the Flesch reading ease scale? Can you aim at the same when you write?
Learn everything you can about good writing and then seek to imitate it. That's the surest way to become a better writer. Or, as Gay Talese puts it: "The best advice is in reading good writers, not seeking advice from them, for we learn best by emulating the best."