Those of you who visit this blog regularly know that I’m a reader. We’re all readers at Writers Who Kill. We’re readers who became writers, but we’ve never stopped being readers. This might seem an obvious fact to you—they’re writers, so of course, they’re readers—but I’ve encountered a number of creative writing students lately who desperately want to be writers but refuse to be readers. And many of my friends who teach also come across these folk.
What I try to explain to them is that reading makes a writer. Especially rereading. Reading the books we love most over and over, savoring them, poring over our favorite passages—all these indulgences lead us to become better writers by osmosis. We are doing unconsciously what the best writers do deliberately. Reading like writers.
I tell students that reading like a writer is the best education you can get for successfully writing, even better than an MFA from a prestigious (and expensive) program. As writers we know we should never take another writer’s words, but we can plunder their techniques. Take the writers who do transitions best (if that’s your current weakness), and analyze how they manage their transitions. Take their dialogue apart if they’re wonderful at it and you’re not. What exactly do they do that makes their dialogue zing? Go and do the same with your own dialogue in your own words. Steal their techniques of craft to use with your own ideas, characters, and words.
For us avid readers, we’ve been doing this without realizing it for years. Every time we reread a favorite, our minds are absorbing the approaches that author took to the problems that novel set for her or him. When we return to a book we love and have read before, we are less concerned with getting to the next page and learning what will happen next. Instead, we read more slowly and discern unconsciously the skill of this description or that action scene or this character depiction. Real learning, especially as a writer, is noticing, paying deep attention to something in order to know it so well that you own it in your mind and can recreate it.
Read, read, read, read, and write, write, write, I tell my students. Then I ask if they notice that I used more “reads” than “writes.” I explain that there are always needs to be a little disparity in favor of reading as a writer. I’m fortunate enough to know many fine writers and even some the world has named “great.” All of them are readers still, constantly engaged in enlarging their experience of the world through reading and enlarging their inventory of craft through reading like a writer.
Do you find reading is important to your writing? Who are the writers you turn to for new techniques?