Can I give you a truth bomb?
Reading books will make you a better writer.
In speaking with a colleague of mine just this morning, we had a conversation about how a client of hers wanted to become a better writer. Especially around having a more exciting and diversified vocabulary.
How do you learn more words?
But you can’t just scroll through Facebook and call that reading. (Not even if you click through and read articles!)
Only reading social media (or the news or magazines or pop fiction) is like eating nothing but potato chips and expecting to be buff and healthy. To read to improve your writing, you need to read the RIGHT types of books! Here are 12 suggestions to expand your reading diet and noticeably impact your skills as a writer.
1. Don’t just read a single type or genre of book
Just like only eating noodles, only readying non-fiction business books isn’t a balanced reading diet. Read a variety of books: non-fiction and fiction, different genres. And don’t forget to read men and women authors!
2. Read the greats
Not everybody is in love with a “classic” or an author you “should” read. Here’s a hint: I’m not a Jane Austen fan! But there are great pieces of literature in all genres. You need to read the authors who have really mastered their craft and can make their words sing!
3. Read award winners
Liking a book is totally subjective. So if you’re stuck on where to start, I’d suggest working your way down a list of book award winners. These aren’t necessarily best sellers! They’re the books that the literary community says are excellent. I personally love the Newbery Award Winners – young adult novels.
4. Go back to a book you loved
Remember that book that moved you? The one that stuck with you? Read that one again! Figure out WHY you loved it so much. I have a list of my go-to books that I love to re-read. (And yes, some of them are kids or young adult books!)
5. Don’t force it!
I’ve tried Moby Dick about a dozen times. The last time was when Small Thing was just a few weeks old and I even tried to get into it by reading it aloud to him. For whatever reason, I just can’t get into it and I’ve always really wanted to read it. If you’re reading something you really can’t stand, you have my permission to find something else to read.
6. Force yourself to finish
Yep, I’m completely contradicting #5. See, I think there’s something to be said for forcing yourself to finish a book that just isn’t doing it for you. Figure out WHY you can’t get into it. What mistake is the author making that keeps you from being engrossed? Then you’ll know to avoid it in your own writing.
This is especially true in self-published books since so many of those authors didn’t invest in the right type of writing support and mentorship. I’m 73% of the way through a memoir right now (Kindle tells me how far along I am) and while the subject is engrossing, I HAD to put it down. I can’t take more of the same. This book would have been even better with better editing!
7. Don’t read the genre or topic you write in
Like a cleanse or fast, go cold-turkey on reading the genre you write. Let your own ideas percolate and rise to the surface. Otherwise, you run the risk of unconsciously copying or plagiarizing the other authors you’re reading. (This is a real thing!)
8. Read something that’s fluff
I don’t mean something that’s crap – poorly written and full of mistakes. I mean read something that is just… fluff. This could be chic lit or a trashy romance novel. Read something that has no other value than to entertain. Are you entertained? Why?
This winter, I read a whole bunch of cozy mysteries. Like 12 in one series, 4 in another – all by the same author. By reading all of these fluff books, back-to-back, I was able to pick out the author’s bad habits – and find similar bad habits in my own writing.
9. Read something old (but not ancient)
Try for something you’ve never read before – and an author you’re not familiar with. Pick up an un-updated version of anything by Dale Carnegie. Try some L. Frank Baum. Read something that uses complex sentences, words that we don’t use any longer, and study the poetry of the language. Look for something that was written and published pre-1920’s for the best results. (Or at least where the author was an adult by the 20’s and writing in the 30’s-50’s!)
10. Read something old-old
And I give you permission NOT to finish it – but give it a whirl. Try the Canterbury Tales (Chaucer), Beowulf, or anything from Virgil or Homer. Try to find an edition that has NOT been modernized too much or translated into oblivion. You’re looking for the old-old writing styles! (There’s a reason I’m not suggesting Shakespeare, although he’s great. You’re looking at literature and Shakespeare, at heart, is a playwright.)
11. Read an early-reader book
These books have lots of pictures and limited text. (A picture-book is defined as images only.) Examine JUST the text and see how the author invokes images and feelings with just a few words.
Small Thing is all about these books right now so I’ve been figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The “poetry” at this age is often forced and sacrifices meaning – not great for language acquisition. But others have beautiful language that is exciting. My favorite: The Owl and the Pussycat.
12. Read poetry
Look at how the words interact with each other. Feel the rhythm of the words, the sounds, the syllables. Extra credit if you read it aloud. You don’t have to like poetry to get a lot from this! You’re becoming a student of language – and taking lessons learned from poetry to prose!
Try all types of poetry from blank verse to sonnets. Look at older poets and newer poets. Try a poem a day for a month and see what happens to how you see, notice, and use language.
Don’t expect results overnight! To get the best benefits, read the works as an author – not a literary critic, not a literature major, or even just for enjoyment. Read them to see what works and what doesn’t, read to find out what you love and what you hate, read to see what has fallen out of style that you love and could incorporate.
The more you read, the better you’ll get at it. And it WILL improve your writing. But remember, that reading alone doesn’t make you a great writer – you’ve got to practice the skills you’re learning from your reading too!
One more bonus tip:
If you must read articles, try for articles that are longer. Skip the 300-500 words that most blog articles target and read longer-form material. If you can, read them in physical format (not on a screen) so it’s harder to skim.
(BTW: THIS article is 1261 words. A far cry from the 300-500 words that most experts say a blog should be! And guess what, if you’re reading THIS, then you made it to the end. Yay for reading!)
Where are YOU going to start your reading-to-become-a-better-writer journey? Leave me a comment below!