Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tuesday Tip: Read

If you want to be a writer, read. A lot. There are several reasons to do this.

One, the more you read, the more you learn about writing. Period. You learn by experience what works and what doesn’t, about the flow of narrative, about pacing, style, vocabulary, and everything else that goes into a book.

Two, by reading in the genre you plan to write in, you learn about what’s been done before. This helps you avoid clich├ęs and stereotypes. You also learn about what is generally expected from the genre. This helps you know what readers of the genre might be looking for, and can also give you ideas for breaking out of the genre in ways that will work for your target audience.

Three, by reading outside the genre you plan to write in, you gain a whole host of advantages over writers who don’t read outside the genre they write in, such as a wider vocabulary, exposure to different methods of pacing, and stylistic tricks. Selectively applying these new strategies can give your writing a fresh feel that will hopefully appeal to your target audience.

Four, reading nonfiction in particular can give you a ton of great ideas, in-genre and cross-genre. It also exposes you to yet more vocabulary and different writing styles.

Five, reading poetry will teach you about how poets convey intense emotion and meaning with just a few words. Learn about imagery and rhythm and grace, and apply that selectively to your writing as appropriate. Remember, poetry does not have to be flowery purple prose—sometimes it’s wonderfully simple and elegant too.

Read for fun. Enjoy what you read, and don’t feel guilty about it unless you aren’t getting your writing done. Reading for the pure joy of it still gets the words into your head, and teaches you about the flow of action and reaction, build-up and climax, conflict and resolution.

Read actively. Pay attention to all the things you read about in books and blogs on writing. What works for you? What doesn’t? What blows you out of the water, and how can you apply that technique? Where does the author follow the rules, and where does he break them—and does he get away with it, or does it fail miserably? If you hate the book, why? Figure out what makes it so terrible, and then avoid doing it yourself! Learning to read actively will also help you with your own revisions, as you’ll be used to paying attention to the craft of the writing as well as to the entertainment.

I’ll warn you, learning to read actively will have an effect on your reading for pleasure. Things will annoy you that you probably wouldn’t have noticed before, and you may find it more difficult to immerse yourself in a good book. For example, I didn’t use to notice random point-of-view changes as much, but now they’re like nails on a chalkboard to me. Also, I get tripped up by oddly worded phrases—where I would have kept going before, now I’ll stop and figure out ways it could be phrased better. In my opinion, it’s a small price to pay to improve my skills.

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