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Writers Talk About Writing

Seven Ways to Ensure Your Reading Is Helping Your Writing

When people ask me the one thing they can do to improve their writing and I tell them to read more, I often receive shocked looks in return. Is it really that simple?

Well, no, of course it isn't. But reading -- and reading well -- can make a huge difference to your writing life. Here are seven tips to ensure you're doing it right.

1) Be sure to read only those books you enjoy. There's no honor in plowing through Charles Dickens if he bores you senseless. Ditto for Albert Camus, Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway. Your life is not an English 100 class -- and reading "obligatory" novels you don't like will only make you feel trapped. If you enjoy Jane Austen (as I do), well, sure, read her. But if you don't, well, don't. I promise you that no reading taskmaster is ever going to call you to account. Reading should be a pleasure. Read what you like so you read more, not less!

2) Read only a limited amount of crap. Tip #1 notwithstanding, you should read only small amounts of badly written material. The reason? You will start to sound like the authors you read. Bottom line: a little bit of People Magazine is okay as is a small amount of authors like John Grisham, who write for plot, not finely crafted sentences. But mainly try to stick with writers whom you honestly admire.

3) Read the kind of writing you aspire to produce yourself. If you're a marketing writer, find the very best marketing writers out there and devour their work. If you produce annual reports, scour the world for the most interesting best-written annual reports in history and read them! Perhaps you have a non-fiction book you want to produce? Read a plethora of non-fiction books until you find a model you want to emulate. This type of reading is never wasted time!

4) Never feel obliged to finish material you don't like. I don't know about you, but I've always had a hard time walking away from things I've started and haven't finished. Nevertheless, I've now learned to close the covers on books that don't "grab" me quickly enough. For example, I recently tried Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. Although the book had earned rave reviews, by about page 80, I still wasn't engaged. So I returned it to the library. True, I couldn't regain the time lost reading 80 pages I didn't enjoy. But this was less "costly" than reading 320 pages I disliked!

5) Keep a record of what you have read. I have kept a book journal for the last 20 years. I don't always remember to record every single book but I try really hard. My journal used to be a spiral-bound notebook; I switched to a computer-based record about five years ago. I record the name of the book, its author, the publishing year, the first sentence of the book (sometimes a bit more) and one or two of my own thoughts. It takes me less than five minutes and I cannot tell you how many times this record has proven to be inordinately useful.

6) Have a good system for tracking the names of books you want to read. I like to have my "future reading" list with me at all times, so I've created three entries in the address book of my iPhone:

  • Books, fiction
  • Books, nonfiction
  • Books, young adult

As the iPhone is always in my purse or pocket, this allows to me pop into any bookstore without planning! When possible, I prefer to buy books for my Kindle but having the list in one portable, electronic place is still incredibly handy.

7) Give books away when you're finished. I'm a firm believer that our lives shouldn't be filled with stuff we don't need. When my husband and I rebuilt our house last year we went through two massive book "thinnings." I've kept a small bookshelf of reference works and books about writing, and a handful of books I adore, but everything else I give to friends when I'm done.

Finally, one important P.S. I'm no longer a member of a book club because I dislike being told what to read -- especially when there's a deadline. If a book club works for you, well, make that item #8. If not, don't feel guilty about it! Reading should be about enjoyment, not guilt.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 9th 2010, 7:19 AM
Comment by: Ruth W. (Reservoir Australia)
Over the years I have had many students ask me how they can best improve their writing. Of course I tell them to read regularly and widely. I like the way you have teased this out to seven tips; students seem to respond well to 'hot tips'! Thanks for sharing your seven ideas.
Tuesday November 9th 2010, 8:09 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I found the idea of a book journal startlingly attractive, as I have spent my life reading an exhorbatant number of books and forgetting all but the title, the author, one idea, or (worst of all) one phrase. I hope I have the remaining bit of brain orginization to start one, though I'm not sure the computer is the right place. -Will have to experiment with that.

This idea may save my friends from emails saying "Do you remember a series of sentimental stories about nice aliens published in the fifties in F&SF Magazine by a woman whose first name began with a Z?" (Direct quote.)
Tuesday November 9th 2010, 8:10 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Forgive my misspelling in the previous comment!
Tuesday November 9th 2010, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Oz (Bloomington, IN)
You acknowledge that there is a paradoxical relationship between Tip 1) and Tip 2), but you offer no way to resolve the paradox. You advise people to read what they like, and not to feel obliged to read things from the English 100 reading list. Yet they are supposed to avoid bad writing in favor of well-crafted sentences. Well, how are they going to recognize a well-crafted sentence unless they develop taste, and how are they going to develop taste unless they read writers who have been admired by people with taste? The issue is more complicated still, since not all good writers are great stylists (Dickens comes to mind) and not all well-crafted sentences are well-crafted in the same way (think of Gibbon versus Hemingway). But the best way to learn to appreciate the various virtues of good writers is by reading good writers. This is not to say that general readers should slog through books that they hate, but they should recognize that literary works often present us with worlds that are different from our own, and that we sometimes need to go through a period of adjustment before we can fully enter these other worlds. So don’t throw down Jane Austen, or any other author, without giving the book a chance.
Thursday November 11th 2010, 5:01 PM
Comment by: Stanislav P.
To the Editor of "Visual Thesaurus": It was confusing and disappointing to find another self-help list among your outstanding contributions. Please try to keep your quality standards as high as possible.
Friday November 12th 2010, 10:49 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the comments! Oz, you correctly note the paradoxical relationship between tips 1 and 2. But you seem to be suggesting that well-crafted sentences appear ONLY in books on the English 100 list. I don't think this is true. There are many well-written books that never win prizes and never make English 100 lists!

I certainly agree with you, however, that not all good writers are great stylists and not all well-crafted sentences are well-crafted in the same way. I also agree that a time of "adjustment" is required to become accustomed to worlds different from our own. Perhaps we both can further agree that reading -- reading ANYTHING -- is better than not reading at all.

I'm trying to reach the people who do little more than watch TV and persuade them to read. Many of them have been turned off reading in high school. My husband, for example, -- a sciences guy who is now a family doctor -- read only "mandatory" novels in high school and loathed them. He discovered reading for pleasure only after graduating from med school. (I met him several years later.) His tastes are quite different from mine and he doesn't read quite as much as I do, but he reads more than most and John Grisham, Tom Clancy (et al) almost never figure in this list. I think the main point is that just about everyone could read MORE -- and you shouldn't let notions about "taste" prevent you from reading.

BUT if you want to write then you also need to recognize that what you read will be reflected in your writing. It's a bit like picking up an accent depending on where you live...

Stanislav P, thanks for your comment. I regret you see this article as "self-help." Perhaps you can see from Oz's thoughtful, interesting response that there is some intellectual rigor to this topic?
Friday November 12th 2010, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Thought provoking it was indeed! Agree completely to the last paragraph in Daphne's response to Oz, the "neuron stimulant"!!!
Monday November 15th 2010, 2:51 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
I am sure when you need vocabulary it is better to read "good English books" as far as possible books with interesting story.It is clear your writing shows that what you read, and also what you think about.
I am completely agree with you concerning the first paragraph , don't insist a reading when it is rather awkward.
Wednesday November 17th 2010, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
No one should need to keep a little notebook of books now, when Goodreads and web apps like it are available. I use it through Facebook.
Sunday November 21st 2010, 5:40 PM
Comment by: vincent Y.
Hi Mrs. Grant,

I was wondering if you recommend any book(s) that are extremely helping in helping struggling turn into eminent writers. Any thoughts or suggestions would be most helpful to me. Also, what are the best ways to proof-read or edit my writing assignments?

Thank You,
Vin Y
Tuesday December 7th 2010, 10:23 PM
Comment by: Sateesh D. (Anniston, AL)
An eye opener! I always felt guilty when I was not able to finish a 'good' (as declared by others) book. Thank you
Monday November 19th 2012, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
I've read this article and the comments with pleasure, as I'm a beginning novelist and former English teacher. Now I'm wondering how listening to books plays into this mix. In my own world, listening to books is both interesting and stimulating, and provides me with thousands of well-constructed sentences and tonal variations. One of my favorite writers for real-life portrayal is Anthony Trollope, but his books are long (his Barchester Towers series totals approx. 3,000 pages) and I can see why they wouldn't appeal to most. But in my opinion, they are entertaining and beautifully written. I'll add here that if I had to sit down and read them, I wouldn't have done so either--not sure why though. Joanna Trollope is a descendant, but so far I haven't found her writing to come anywhere close.
I agree with Daphne's advice to read what you're interested in writing. And she's made me realize that I'm reading what I'd LIKE to write, not what I'm actually writing. A light-bulb moment--thanks, Daphne. You never disappoint!

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