Writing Secrets: What can you do for your writing? Read.

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Writing Challenge

I was asked the other day what I would consider to be the “most important thing” a novice writer can do to improve her creative writing skills.

Besides read, I asked?

Her jaw became set and her eyes glazed. “Okay,” she said stiffly. “What must I read?’

Hit me with it, she seemed to be saying. It made me want to laugh. It struck me that we’re programmed to think of all learning as unpleasant, and to believe that reading should be purely instructional.

Read for pleasure, not “improvement”, I told her. Don’t read didactic books you believe will teach you something. And don’t subscribe to some old-fashioned prejudice about fiction vs non-fiction.

But what if your taste runs to beach reads and airport fiction? Firstly, there’s no longer always a strict demarcation between genre and literary writing. Much has been written recently about the shape-shifters: genre works which make use of literary techniques and show excellent character development, and literary works with suspenseful plotting.

Secondly, anything you read will teach you more about writing generally. Reading feeds writing because, without even being aware of it, you’ll gain a sense of the devices writers use to immerse you in the world they’ve created and carry you along with them.

In fact, even books that are clunky and unsatisfactory will teach you something. If a book doesn’t work, ask yourself why. What is it about this particular story that doesn’t retain your interest, or which causes you to lose your suspension of disbelief? What is it about the characters that makes them unrealistic or stereotyped?

Thirdly, you’ll surely be drawn to write the kind of books you enjoy reading, so your reading predilections can only improve your skills in the type of writing you favour.

Nonetheless, it is worth challenging yourself. Just as we do in other areas of our lives, we can fall into a reading rut. A particular kind of book simply becomes a habit.

So, even if it’s not your natural preference, scatter in a few examples of “great literature”, or acclaimed literary fiction. Don’t avoid them because you think they’ll be “too hard”, or won’t hold your interest. Many great works of fiction, past and present, are, indeed, most enjoyable and cannot help but teach you good writing practice.

Generally, though, pick the kind of books which give you pleasure. And encourage your children to read books which draw them in, rather than those you feel will be “improving”.

Reading for enjoyment will ensure you retain reading as a habit. If it’s a chore, you won’t do it, and if you aren’t a voracious reader, I’d venture to say you won’t make a writer.

Lose yourself in a book, and don’t feel the slightest bit guilty. It’s good for you. Readers of fiction, scientists tell us, have more empathy. They are better equipped to step into the shoes of others and understand their lives and the shading between dark and light which characterise human personalities.

What greater justification could you have? Besides building your writing skills, you’ll be making yourself a better person.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: It might be crappy, but does your story work?

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