This is part of the “How Good Writing Happens” series. Missed the first two parts? No sweat! Read the introduction here and the first installment–“Editing the Editor: Every Writer Needs a Critic”–here.
As I scanned my inbox this morning, I came up with a Linked In group discussion with the topic “You know you’re a writer if…” Now, if it was my group discussion, I would have used “when” instead of “if,” but that’s neither here nor there. There are over 400 comments posted to the question currently, and many are pretty standard: When people tell you you’re a writer! When you write day and night! When you never leave home without a notebook and pen!
The response that immediately came to mind, however, was something like this:
When you read something–anything, a newspaper, a novel, a magazine article, a cereal box–and take mental notes on techniques you like, unusual words and interesting lead-ins and transitions that could then use in your own work. I don’t mean plagiarizing, but rather continually adapting your own writing technique so that the words you pen reflect the words you enjoy reading.
It’s not a far-fetched strategy. Remember when you were just learning how to write? Didn’t your teachers give you examples of what the ideal comparative essay or haiku looked like before you began to compose your own? Mine did. I would look for the essentials: language, structure and style. And then I would write, erase, study once more. The process would repeat itself until I emerged with a draft of something decent.
If you want to be a good writer, you have to read. No excuses. I’ve been told by some writers that they loved to write but they don’t read. That is completely contradictory to everything I’ve ever known. How can your style grow and improve if you don’t read work that is better and worse than your own? The answer: You can’t.
An editor can help, of course, but be prepared for frustration when you continually come up against a solid wall of red ink. When you read a varied selection of writing, be it poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction, you learn by example. Sometimes you don’t even realize that it’s happening, and yet you absorb your loves and likes and loathes, and adjust to accommodate this new knowledge. Corny as it sounds, when writing is a lifelong passion, whether you’re a careerist, a hobbyist or somewhere in-between, reading must precede and follow all of your endeavors.
This is the second installation to the three-part series (well, four-part if you include the introduction) titled “How Good Writing Happens.” Look for the final piece of the puzzle on Friday: “Journalism, for Clarity’s Sake.”