Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by glorybee » Sat Aug 29, 2015 10:24 am

I’ve been rendered speechless a few times over my several years here at FaithWriters when I’ve read different people on the forums say something along the line of “I don’t read for enjoyment,” or even worse, “I don’t read much at all.” What would you think if you heard a would-be chef say, “I don’t care much for food, and I never taste new things. Peanut butter and jelly is just fine for me.” Or if an aspiring artist said, “I’ve never been to an art museum, and I don’t want to look at other artists’ work. I’m just going to keep putting paint on canvas the way that someone once told me was pretty.” Or what if a promising musician said, “I don’t listen to music very often, but when I do, I only listen to harmonica music. It’s the only kind of music I enjoy.”

These are all absurd examples—but all of those ridiculous people want to achieve in fields that, like writing, require a blend of natural talent, creativity, and training of specific skills. You can learn those skills in several ways: a class, a mentor, a critique group—but one of the best ways is to read. To read a lot. To read many different kinds of writing. To read writing by the best writers. And to read like a writer.

So let me elaborate on each of those points a bit.

1. People who want to be good writers should read a lot of books.

Recent polls have shown that the average American only reads six books a year (sorry, non-Americans—I don’t know about you). That’s not nearly enough reading! This article gives 10 advantages to reading; the ones that should particularly interest writers are knowledge, vocabulary expansion, and improved writing skills. Read the article for more on those points.

This article expands on that list: check out the explanations for #4, 8, 10, and 16.

I won’t attempt to re-write those very excellent articles, but I strongly advise that you read at least one of them.

2. People who want to be good writers should read many different kinds of writing.

Let me expand on one of the examples I gave in the first paragraph. An aspiring chef becomes better as she is exposed to more and more cooking styles and international cuisines. Similarly, the aspiring writer will get better as she reads more diverse writing styles and genres.

Some on this site have said they only read Christian books. That irks me a bit—they are limiting themselves by not reading the great diversity of literature available to them. I totally understand that some people are bothered by certain content, and I won’t ask people to do something that makes them uncomfortable. However, there are good books—even great books—without objectionable content, in every genre. And if you’re a person who can read edgier material, you’re missing out on some fantastic voyages if you limit yourself to only one genre or to only Christian writing.

There’s nothing wrong with having a favorite genre—I just urge you to read outside of your comfort zone every now and then. You may find something new that really appeals to you. You may read a new writing style or voice that stretches you or inspires you to try something new.

Here’s a good list of books to get you started.

Here’s another one.

And one more.

I found those by Googling “100 best books,” and you’ll find several more similar lists if you do the same. Or if you’re interested in expanding to just one unfamiliar genre at a time, try Googling “best _____ books” where you fill in the blank with one of these genres:

Classic
Coming of age
Contemporary
Crime/Detective
Fantasy
Historical fiction
Humor
Literary fiction
Magical realism
Mystery
Realistic fiction
Romance
Science fiction
Suspense/Thriller
Western
Young Adult

There are many other genres, some of which overlap with the ones listed here. Make it a goal to read at least one book from each genre, perhaps within the next year.

3. People who want to be good writers should read works by the best writers.

Of course, “the best writers” is pretty subjective—how do you know if something you’re reading is by one of the best?

First, choose books that have stood the test of time—books that are considered classics. You’ll recognize the titles of those books; perhaps you’ve even thought, I should read that book. I’ve heard a lot about it. If it’s a book that’s made it onto the high school or college reading lists, or lists like those I’ve linked to above, that’s a pretty good indication.

The best non-classic books have generally positive reviews—but this comes with a caveat. Reviews on sites like Amazon or GoodReads aren’t necessarily true to the quality of the book. Many writers ask their friends and family to leave positive reviews on those sites, and unfortunately, some writers even pay for positive reviews. In general, the more reviews a book has, the more likely that some of them are from impartial readers. But to be sure, check to see if a book has been reviewed by a major periodical or by well-known writers in that same genre.

If a writer has several other published titles, there’s a better chance that he’s a good writer. And speaking of published…unfortunately, since it’s so easy to publish these days, there’s an awful lot of bad writing out there. In general—if it’s been published by a legitimate publishing company (not a vanity press) or self-published, it’s more likely to be worthy writing. I’m NOT saying that everything self-published is bad writing or that everything traditionally published is good writing; that’s absolutely not the case. However, the odds are that you’re more likely to find excellent writing among books that are traditionally published.

Now that I’ve thoroughly trampled on the toes of some of you:

4. People who want to be good writers read like a writer.

When I’m reading a really good book, sometimes I read it in one setting, even far into the night, because I’m so caught up by the characters and the plot. The last thing I want to do is to analyze the author’s writing style or to ask myself, what makes this book so successful?

But that sort of analysis is a way that you can teach yourself excellent writing. You might wait until the second time through a book, but when you’ve got some wonderful writing in front of you, ask some of the following questions:

• How did this writer use (voice, tone, vocabulary, pacing, sentence structure, etc.) to tell his story effectively?
• What made me stop and re-read that paragraph? What made it so good?
• This sentence seemed to break a rule. Why did the writer do that? What made it work?
• Why do I care about this character?
• Why was that sentence so long? Why was that chapter so short? Why did the writer include (that event, that description, that character)? Why did the writer not include this description or detail?

That’s just a sample of the kinds of questions that an analytical reader might ask in order to better understand good writing.

HOMEWORK:

1. Are you a reader? If not, why not?
2. Respond to one or more of the numbered points above. Disagreeing with me is fine—I can take it. Let’s have a discussion!
3. Do you have anything to add on the benefits of reading?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by itsjoanne » Sat Aug 29, 2015 12:07 pm

I will be honest (and hide my head!). I do NOT read as much as I used to. I really do need to get better about it. I do read in my genre (which is super easy and super fast, since it is picture books LOL) - one book a day (which I would not attempt you trying if you write novels LOL). These I do read like a writer - eventually. If it is REALLY good, I may have to read it a few times before I can look at it objectively.

I really REALLY need to read more. And I WILL :)

And I just wanted to point one thing out - which is not contradicting you, just adding. Reading books that are NOT great can also be beneficial. If you can study these books and figure out what makes the book NOT work for you, it can help you to write better and avoid the same issues. But, overall, it is better, as Jan said, to read excellent books.

Great lesson:)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by glorybee » Sat Aug 29, 2015 2:07 pm

itsjoanne wrote: And I just wanted to point one thing out - which is not contradicting you, just adding. Reading books that are NOT great can also be beneficial. If you can study these books and figure out what makes the book NOT work for you, it can help you to write better and avoid the same issues. But, overall, it is better, as Jan said, to read excellent books.

Great lesson:)
Good point, Joanne. The question "Why didn't you like that book?" is easier to answer than "Why did you like that book?" but it's every bit as important.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by CatLin » Sat Aug 29, 2015 4:06 pm

I read. I read a LOT. I always have. I read from many different genres, although I quit reading romance when I grew bored with the same predictable plot. I was tricked this year and accidentally read a romance that wasn't advertised as such. :) Looking at your list of genres, I don't think I've ever read a western, but all of the others - yes. Probably all within the past year.

I guess that's why the mechanics of writing was easier for me - I learn many things by observing and absorbing, a "monkey see, monkey do" type thing.

My co-worker told a while back that she was setting a goal to read more. She had read 5 books the year before. I think the look I gave her might be the same as if she had grown two heads. I said, "I read that many over the weekend." :) I helped her put the free Kindle app on her phone, and now she reads more because she can read anywhere. I also bring her books I think she'd like, and when I buy for the church library I bring them to her first to pick from.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by glorybee » Sat Aug 29, 2015 4:24 pm

CatLin wrote: I helped her put the free Kindle app on her phone, and now she reads more because she can read anywhere.
This is an excellent point, Cat. A lot of people eschew e-readers, because there's something more appealing to them about actual physical books. But if they aren't reading anyway--what's the point of complaining about e-readers?

As you said, it's a free app, if you have a smart phone. Even if you don't have a smart phone, you can get a very basic Kindle for under $100, and over time, it pays for itself in savings because the ebooks are cheaper than paper books. Plus, there's a screen that lists bestsellers and (I think) well-reviewed books.

I actually like both "real" books and e-readers. A book is more aesthetically pleasing, but an e-reader is more convenient for traveling, and I can adjust the size of the type to make reading easier on my old, old, decrepit eyes.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by CatLin » Sat Aug 29, 2015 4:36 pm

Plus, there's a screen that lists bestsellers and (I think) well-reviewed books.
On the Amazon Kindle page on the web, you can also find a list of the 100 top FREE books, in any and every genre. Most of the books on my Kindle were free, and through that I've read (or started) many "not so good" books that show me what poor writing is. You can also lend your books to any other Kindle user. (not all books are lendable, but most are.)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by glorybee » Sat Aug 29, 2015 4:48 pm

I'm just a tad nervous about the conversation having turned to reading "not so good" books and learning by negative example. That's certainly one way to learn, and both Joanne and Cat were right to mention it. But it's not the BEST way to learn, any more than a chef will learn how to cook well by eating horrible food, or a musician will learn to play the piano well by listening to a bad pianist. They may learn a few things to avoid, but very little actual learning of chef-y skills or musicianship will occur.

Read good books. Read lots and lots of GOOD books.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by CatLin » Sat Aug 29, 2015 4:55 pm

Oh, definitely. I started reading classics a few years ago - I was never brave enough to dip my toes in there before, but I'm glad I did.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by jaybird » Sat Aug 29, 2015 7:02 pm

I love reading and listening to books. Of course it's a difficult task to list 100 great books to read. I didn't even see A Tale of Two Cities or Treasure Island. Lilith is a pretty good book I'm listening to.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by JudySauer » Sat Aug 29, 2015 11:48 pm

My reason for not reading is due to sight issues. I listen to audiobooks, however they often make me fall asleep, or I get bored from listening after months on end. I understand your philosophy. If I could read more I would certainly heed your guidance. Perhaps this medical condition is why my writing is not as catchy as others' seem to be. Thanks for the lesson.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by glorybee » Sat Aug 29, 2015 11:57 pm

JudySauer wrote:My reason for not reading is due to sight issues. I listen to audiobooks, however they often make me fall asleep, or I get bored from listening after months on end. I understand your philosophy. If I could read more I would certainly heed your guidance. Perhaps this medical condition is why my writing is not as catchy as others' seem to be. Thanks for the lesson.
I'm sorry that you're not able to read, but I think most of this advice would still apply to audio books. If they're putting you to sleep or boring you, I think they might not be very good writing. And although you won't be able to analyze the writer's use of punctuation (and other similar items), you can still determine how the writer uses vocabulary and pacing, and how she develops her characters, and the way the plot falls together (or falls apart)--that sort of thing.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by JudySauer » Sun Aug 30, 2015 4:25 pm

Hi Jan, I have tried to glean storytelling from audiobooks. This is an area that needs shoring up. I can tell, tell, tell, but show seems to be a challenge. I copy my text into Natural Reader then close my eyes and listen to see if my writing paints a picture or shows a story. Perhaps so, however, others may perceive my writing differently. Thanks for your guidance.
p.s. sorry for any typos, etc., my eyes are quite blurry today.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Sun Aug 30, 2015 7:30 pm

Judy, I just sent you a PM. Let me know if you don't receive it.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Sun Aug 30, 2015 9:33 pm

Jan, I can't possibly disagree with any of your four points. Of course people who want to write should read lots of books, read different kinds of writing, read books by the best writers, and should read like a writer.

But here's my dirty little secret—I'm not much of a reader. I looked at the three lists to which your provided links. I have read very few of the books listed, and of the few I did read, I didn't enjoy. In fact, I don't even recognize many of the titles. :oops:

I was an avid reader all through elementary school, reading well above my grade level. Then starting in middle school, and becoming painfully evident by sophomore year—to the horror of my parents, I was no longer much of a reader. I just didn't enjoy the books that were assigned. It wasn't the fault of my teachers. Many of my classmates were frightfully well read.

College was no better. I survived freshman English and then disappeared into my major—biology—where thankfully no one asked my opinion of the writings of J.D. Salinger or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or whomever.

Later, I tried joining the book discussions that are available at the college where I teach. I thought I would benefit from the influence of experts in literature and philosophy. Alas, I didn't much enjoy the readings and always felt I was out of my depth.

Thank goodness for Hollywood which made many good books into films. If it weren't for the movies, I'd be really illiterate.

Looking over the books that I have read, I prefer non-fiction, mostly about practical "how to" topics—I'm not even sure they count as books. Most "how to" information is available on the Internet now anyway. The novels I have read are mostly romances, especially historical romances.

My favorite novel is Circle of Love by Syrell Rogovin Leahy. It's old—published in 1980. Leahy is a good writer; I don't notice any glaring mistakes such as too much telling, too many adverbs, etc. The book's greatest strength, and what makes it so beautiful, is that she describes every detail of the heroine's (Anna) thoughts and experiences whenever she is with or thinking about Anton. The writer doesn't spend a lot of time describing Anna's experiences at school or college, because they aren't what's important to her. Leahy lets the reader see the world exactly as Anna experiences it.

To me Circle of Love is the perfect romance, almost like a musical composition.

Cinnamon Bear

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Re: Be a Better Writer--BE A BETTER READER

Post by glorybee » Sun Aug 30, 2015 9:48 pm

Virginia, that's fascinating to me! As a person who loves to read, I find myself wanting to urge some titles on you--"Oh, surely you'll love this one!" But after teaching for 30 years, I fully acknowledge that everyone has different learning styles, and yours just isn't the one that I've laid out in this lesson. You're a very good writer, though, so I'd just encourage you to carry on with what you're doing--it's working for you!

Out of sheer curiosity--since you don't enjoy reading very much, why did you want to become a writer? I'm very interested in hearing about that. I'll bet you have a fascinating story!
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