Reading to Write

Someone recently asked me for advice in improving their writing skills – grammar, word choice and creativity, etcetera.  Obviously, the best way to improve your writing is simply to read as much as you can and write regularly. 

First off, we’ll take it as a given that you like to read.  Otherwise, why would you be here?  I have always believed that there is a book for every reader.  Some people enjoy horror writers like Stephen King while some like romance writers such as Jayne Ann Krentz, and some prefer fantasy writers like Terry Pratchett.  Some people don’t like books at all and instead prefer newspapers, magazines or blogs.  To each his own, just read.  I don’t think I’d ever have to recommend that to someone who likes to write.

That takes us to writing regularly.  It doesn’t have to be fiction.  You could pick a different relative every few days and write a real, old-fashioned letter, or even a chatty e-mail.  Older relatives who might not get out much would be particularly grateful to receive your letters.  Write letters to people in the military service overseas.  Start a journal, write down your memories from childhood or try your hand at essays about things in life that you are passionate about.  Start a blog about something like that and you may have the chance to meet people who are like minded.

The point is to write.  Writing regularly exercises your knowledge of the language.  Look up words when you’re not sure of the spelling, check the grammar when you’re unsure of that.  A wonderful little book to help you with all points of grammar usage, as it comes up, is A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker.  I have had one of these little spiral bound reference books since the early nineties and have found it indispensible for every type of writing. 

If you want to learn to write easily on any topic, try prompts.  Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and The Pocket Muse 2: Endless Inspiration for Writers by Monica Wood offer a wealth of prompts to get you writing.  Pick one every day and set yourself a time limit – 10, 20 or 30 minutes, and just write.  In the same vein, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron has been used by people in many disciplines to free up their creativity.  I used it one year as a twelve week course, reading a chapter each Sunday night, doing the assignments each week and writing the 3 pages of longhand “morning pages” every day.  I believe the morning pages did me the most good, simply allowing me to write three pages every morning that had no rules.  It taught me Anne Lamott’s concept of “shitty first drafts” before I ever read Bird by Bird, which we’ll get to a bit later.

One of the most widely read and praised basic, but indispensible, books on writing is the slim volume, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.  Only 92 pages long, including the index, the authors cover elementary rules of usage and principles of composition as well as words and expressions commonly misused, and also make simple recommendations on style.  You have to know the rules before you can know when to break them. 

Those books will pretty much cover improving your grammar, word choice and creativity.  If you’re already a writer and want to delve into books on honing your craft, or are just curious about what it takes to make a living at writing, there are two books have stood out for me so far.  Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell was one of the first books on writing that I read.  I understand this is now published as The Successful Novelist but I think the original title is more inviting to someone who really loves to write.  It is not only instructive, but entertaining.  Similiarly, part memoir and part writing instruction manual, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is very accessible and I identify with what she has to say.  I recognize myself in her memoir and her advice makes sense.  On Writing by Stephen King is definitely more entertaining than instructive.  It is subtitled “A Memoir of the Craft” and rightfully so.

Read and write, that’s the long and short of it, but also the pleasure.

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