5 Unconventional Ways to Become a Better Writer (Hint: It’s About Being a Better Reader)

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improve your writing - readingCan I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. – Stephen King

Even if you’re not a ‘writer’ per se, writing can be highly beneficial. It can be helpful for a number of things:

Generally, there are two things that writers recommend to others who want to improve: more writing, and reading. More writing is an obvious one, since practice makes perfect. But writing in a vacuum won’t do us much good. Reading exposes us to other styles, other voices, other forms and genres of writing. Importantly, it exposes us to writing that’s better than our own and helps us to improve.

Reading—the good and the bad—inspires you. It develops your palate for all the tricks that writers have invented over the years. You can learn from textbooks about the writing craft, but there’s no substitute for discovering for yourself how a writer pulls off a trick. Then that becomes part of your experience. – Roz Morris

Since reading is something we learn to do when we first start school, it’s easy to think we’ve got it sorted out and we don’t need to work on this skill anymore. Or, that we don’t need to exercise our reading muscles anymore. But illustrator Chuck Jones pointed out in this letter to a class of students how silly it would be to not read when we have the chance:

Knowing how to read and not reading books is like owning skis and not skiing, owning a board and never riding a wave, or, well, having your favorite sandwich in your hand and not eating it. If you owned a telescope that would open up the entire universe for you would you try to find reason for not looking through it? Because that is exactly what reading is all about; it opens up the universe of humour, of adventure, of romance, of climbing the highest mountain, of diving in the deepest sea.

So let’s take a look at five unconventional ways to become better writers by changing the way we read.

1. Skip sections

I’m one of those people who feels bad if I miss anything (sometimes known as ‘fear of missing out‘). When it comes to reading, I definitely feel this. If something further ahead catches my eye, I can’t keep reading until I go back and catch up on the parts I missed.

I’ve actually realized recently that there is a kind of freedom in giving up that feeling of needing to see everything. Sometimes, it’s okay to skip parts. Especially if they’re not relevant to you. Readers on the web skim for a reason. In fact it has almost become our default way of reading, as this eye-tracking study shows:

When we’re reading on the web, we’ll often find handy stuff to help us do this, like subheadings or bold text. These can help us skim through and get the gist of an article quickly, so we can decide whether to go back and reread the parts we skipped.

Roberto Estreitinho is a fan of this method:

A short bonus regarding long reads: in case of doubt, skip to the conclusion. If it’s worthy of understanding how the author got there, read it all. If not, congratulations. You just avoided wasting time.

One of the benefits of skipping over sections is that you’re not overloading your brain with irrelevant information, so the info that is going in can be processed more easily. Hopefully, this method can help us to remember more of what we read!

All the information we have available only increases our stress levels and diminishes available time. We consume much more than we create, we read much more than we think, and it should be the other way around. We have to make sure we consume the things that truly matter to us, but only so that we have time to create something that matters to someone else. – Roberto Estreitinho

2. Quit altogether

The older I get, the more I’m becoming a fan of quitting. Not for the sake of it, of course, but when continuing on doesn’t have enough (or any) benefits, sometimes pulling out is the best option.

Famous writer Henry Miller even advocated for reading less in his book, The Books in My Life:

One of the results of this self-examination — for that is what the writing of this book amounts to — is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more…. I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ‘well-educated’ man — yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of ‘books.’ But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully.

Reading is meant to be a fun activity. Your brain doesn’t want to slog through something it finds boring.

In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard defends the habit of not reading as something we should all do more of:

To speak without shame about books we haven’t read, we would thus do well to free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps, as transmitted and imposed by family and school, for we can strive toward this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it.

If we really respect our time, let’s spend it on things we enjoy and reading that has long-term benefits for us.

3. Read things you hadn’t thought about reading

Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window. – William Faulkner

It’s really easy to get into a habit of doing the same things over and over—this is even true of our reading habits. Once we choose a genre, an author or a topic we like, it’s too easy to keep reading those same things.

improve your writing - read new things

For me, I struggle to give fiction its due since I’ve become hooked on non-fiction books and blog posts. And even though I like true stories, I’ve never been keen on reading biographies. Of course, when I did start giving fiction stories and biographies the time of day, I realized not only how good they are, but how much I can learn from them as well.

If you’re stuck in a reading rut like me, try pushing yourself to try a new genre or writing style now and then.

Socialist politician Milada Horáková wrote in a letter from prison to her daughter that it was important to read ‘everything valuable’:

There was a time in my life when I read voraciously, and then again times when work did not permit me to take a single book in my hand, apart from professional literature. That was a shame. Here in recent months I have been reading a lot, even books which probably would not interest me outside, but it is a big and important task to read everything valuable, or at least much that is.

Ask your friends or bookstore staff for recommendations if you’re not sure where to start. You could also try different formats if you’re looking for something new, like long form articles, audiobooks or poetry.

Nicholas Sparks writes that all writers should read, and shows how useful his varied reading habits have been:

Second, you must read, and read a lot. Did I say A LOT? I read over a hundred books a year and have done so since I was fifteen years old, and every book I’ve read has taught me something. I’ve learned that some authors are incredible at building suspense (see The Firm by John Grisham), I’ve read others that scare the jeepers out of me (see The Shining by Stephen King). Some authors can weave an incredible number of story lines into a single, coherent novel, with all parts coming together at the end that makes it impossible to stop turning the pages (see The Sum of all Fears by Tom Clancy), while other authors make me laugh out loud (seeBloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore). I’ve also learned that many, many authors fail when attempting to do these things. By reading a lot of novels in a variety of genres, and asking questions, it’s possible to learn how things are done—the mechanics of writing, so to speak—and which genres and authors excel in various areas.

Surprisingly, this includes re-reading books you’ve already read. I wouldn’t have expected this to be a productive use of my time, but Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature explains why this is so important:

Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.

4. Walk away and take notes

I came across this post by Shane Parrish recently that explains a trick to getting more out of the books you read. Essentially, it’s a matter of taking regular breaks to make notes on what you’ve read:

While on the flight to Omaha, he was reading. He took notes on the material itself, and every time he completed a chapter he pulled out a sheet of white paper and wrote a single page summary on what he had just read. He places the paper in another folder. This is how he gets his learning deeper and this also enables him to refer to summaries in the future.

This helps you to test your comprehension and give your brain a chance to assimilate the information before you continue reading. The post goes on to quote Daniel Coyle’s advice for retaining the information we read:

Research shows that people who follow strategy B [read ten pages at once, then close the book and write a one page summary] remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow strategy A [read ten pages four times in a row and try to memorize them].

Mary Gordon wrote about how copying sections from books and taking notes on what she’s read helps inspire her own words:

Before I take pen to paper, I read. I can’t begin my day reading fiction; I need the more intimate tone of letters and journals. From these journals and letters — the horse’s mouth — I copy something that has taken my fancy, some exemplum or casual observation I take as advice. These usually go into the Swedish journal, except for the occasional sentence that shimmers on its own, and then it goes into the handmade Vermonter.

I move to Proust; three pages read in English, the same three in French. In my Proust notebook I write down whatever it is I’ve made of those dense and demanding sentences. Then I turn to my journal, where I feel free to write whatever narcissistic nonsense comes into my head.

5. Fight back

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. - Kurt Vonnegut

There’s a reason social networks like Goodreads and GetGlue exist. We love to share our recreational activities. We love to have an opinion on everything, including what we read.

This is a great thing.

If what you read makes you angry, or sad, or frustrated, or whatever—use that. Finding something you care about is worth cherishing. If you want to rant against the author’s premise or post a rebuttal to their argument, go for it. This will make your brain work really hard, as you analyze their ideas and form your own in response.

It can even take place as marginalia—the notes and marks we make in the margins of our books. This helps us to not only remember the author’s original point better, but to form our own clear thoughts about what we’ve read, as pointed out in How to Read a Book:

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

This is an important step to take if you want to move from being in motion to taking action—putting pen to paper is the first step!

Whether you want to write a review or summary of what you’ve read, share some lessons you learned or simply explore some of the ideas it brought up for you, this can be a highly beneficial exercise. After all, storytelling has a profound impact on our brains. Bringing your reading and writing together might help you to notice how they relate more, as well. For instance, recognizing clever word usage in what you read or picking up style tips to use in your own work.

As H.P. Lovecraft wrote in his essay Literary Composition, merely learning rules for writing is not enough. We must all become better readers, as well:

No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules. … All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.

And as Paul Graham said, “writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them.” So get reading, get writing, and watch the ideas start flowing! And especially if you’re writing online, you can become very scientific about how to share on Twitter, Facebook and finding titles for your blog to make your writing and reading life even easier.

If you need some help finding great work to read, this Medium post is a good place to start.

Image credits: Public Places, Dennis’ Photography, Auzigog

  • https://www.facebook.com/alex.richardson.921025 Alex Richardson

    I’ve always liked that quote you included by Nabokov, but I’ve never really agreed with it. Re-reading a text is valuable; it’s certainly a different experience every time, but to say that you can’t appreciate a text the first time through because you’re too focused on understanding what it’s about kind of disregards the value of the content in my opinion.

    Nabokov was obsessed with details – Lolita is so full of obscure details that no one is even sure what he intended to be there and what readers have invented. Nabokov told a student at one point that the text made no conscious allusion to Alice in Wonderland (a novel that he translated into Russian, changing every pun and detail to fit the Russian frame of reference), but readers have tracked the main characters’ path across America and claimed that it mirrors a set of chess moves that would free Alice in a scene in which she is trapped on a chess board in the latter novel. The level of detail is really cool, but he said himself that he viewed plot as more of a means than an end and I just can’t get down with that.

    I probably sound totally pretentious right now – 4 years of Russian lit will do that to you. I’m curious about what you think though, you write a great article! I’m especially impressed with the eye tracking study you brought up. I’m also not totally sold on taking notes while you’re reading for pleasure, but taking periodic breaks to let yourself process is valuable in almost anything (especially when you should be working, oops).

    • Belle

      Hey Alex,

      Thanks for reading!

      Nabokov’s quote can certainly seem extreme. Particularly when you’re reading for pleasure!

      As for taking notes—I don’t think I would do this if I were reading fiction. I certainly do it when reading nonfiction (which, as I said in the article, I do much more often), though it’s a less structured process than the one described. I tend to make short notes or copy down quotes that I like as I notice them, and only fully stop to write notes if I find my brain too full of thoughts to keep reading!

      I agree the eye tracking study is really fascinating, too. It’s one I tend to go back to and reference a lot, because it’s such clear data on how we read online!

  • olavea

    Wow Belle Beth Cooper thank you for this great post. In particular I liked this part about marginalia. A shiny new word for me:

    “If you want to rant against the author’s premise or post a rebuttal to their argument, go for it. This will make your brain work really hard, as you analyze their ideas and form your own in response.

    It can even take place as marginalia— the notes and marks we make in the margins of our books.”

    Tonight I will go through my most recent book “Lean Analytics” and reread my marginalia, find something properly angry and write a tweet to one of the authors. Yaargh!

    • Belle

      Hey, thanks for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I think marginalia is really cool, and I hope it gets even easier to add marginalia to digital books in the future.

      Maybe try a blog post about your thoughts on Lean Analytics! I’m sure other people would be interested to read about the book and what you got from it :)

  • http://www.TheWritersSocial.com/ The Writers Social

    My readers will love this article as did I. Hope you do not mind I will share it with them on my website. Thank you for the great insights.

    • Belle

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for linking to the article from your website, that’s no problem at all! :)

  • theirmind

    This is how I learn: How to be a good reader from the start, but I still think I’m not good enough.

  • Ammar Tinwala

    Hi Belle, really liked this article.
    Really liked this point of “Rereading” and “Taking Notes” didn’t knew that were an important part of reading.
    Will start this habit of taking notes with your article.

    • Belle

      That’s awesome! Let me know how you go :)

  • http://www.justanoteonmarketing.tumblr.com/ Agus Iskandar

    This is really really good article! Thanks a lot for sharing

  • Aaron Musick

    I read very visually. I have to see it in some form. If I cannot picture it in my head I don’t learn it. That’s why my goal is always to unite the writers with the perfect image.

    • Dohjoka

      Uniting writers with the perfect image. Is their a job title for that? Or just a way of helping readers?

      • Aaron Musick

        Photo editor or copy editors are the titles you will most often see with it though it is becoming standard (as well it should) for writers to think of what image should go with the article.

  • crystal Ross

    I agree with you. You have to switch it up and read outside of your comfort zone sometimes. Great tips! ;)

  • Matthew Baldwin

    The link, for me, goes to my home page. :( Are there any good “medium” books you would suggest? I study history in College. A bit of a romantic. I like mystery books that have historical sense. I like good books that I don’t have to look up every fifth word in the dictionary. Please help :) TY!