Writing is difficult for me. But, conversely, reading is relatively easy. The better the book appeals to my sensibilities, the easier it is to read. The concept that reading more might make my writing better never really connected until I started reading close to one hundred books a year. Here are six ways I’ve found that reading makes you a better writer.
- Increases your vocabulary. This one is perhaps the most obvious. The more times you see a word and see it being used in the context of sentences, the more you’re going to know them and use them yourself. Often this is hidden from your view as a writer until it’s time to use a great word.
- You learn to create a better flow. This is a big challenge when I write (especially when I go away and come back). Good writing always has a kind of stream to it, connecting one idea to the next idea. Often, amazing writing manages to condense a large amount of information into very few paragraphs but still moves from one idea to the next. When I read more of this, I begin to see better ways of making ideas flow in my own work.
- The way a book is made becomes significant. As someone who spent most of my life not reading, I’d never really understood why it mattered if a book was big and thick or really small. Indeed, the big one just takes longer to read, right? Well, as I’ve become a reader, I’ve learned that the size of a book (in all terms, not just pages) is meaningful. The number of words an author chooses to put on a page, the number of pages in a book and the font used influences in the speed, feeling, and readability of a book. For the book to be more personal, the use of tattered edges may be employed, or for it to stand out more, the use of a colourful cover. The more I’ve read, the more I’ve understood the significance of these things.
- You see personality and style. My days of reading very few books amounted to the occasional Stephen King thriller and technical computer books. There weren’t many opportunities for me to see different writing styles. When I started to read more, they were books like Hemingway’s Movable Feast and Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. The deeply different styles of writing and perspectives are so apparent that with a small portion of prose from these writers yields a fingerprint. This exposure to different styles allows me as a writer to understand my own style and how that might manifest on the page.
- Transferring dialogue to the page becomes clearer. It’s obvious that when reading people talk you don’t see the “uhm” and “ahh” sounds. But writing dialogue goes far deeper into how the quotes flow, how the spoken word furthers the story, punctuation, and even the all-important descriptive text that accompanies the dialogue. For poorly written speech, it’s often very difficult to know who’s speaking at any given moment. but, when done well, dialogue propels a great narrative forward with action instead of exposition.
- You start to appreciate all the other stuff. In my unsophisticated ways as a reader, I’d just get right to the point and start reading at page 1. Over time, however, I have come to see the value in what’s called “front matter” and “back matter.” This stuff that includes title pages, table of contents, afterward, notes, and other detritus-looking parts of a book has a particular and important function. What the author includes here can frame a book and give readers important guides to what’s coming. The more you read, the better you’ll be at making more than just the core text matter.
Recently I’ve been very interested in how to read more and how reading affects other aspects of our lives. It’s these synergies that come together when we read longer texts such as books. That’s the cool stuff. I’ve actually considered writing a book about these ideas. If that happens you’ll read about it here first.