If you haven’t read Part 1 of this series yet, go do that here: How to Become a Better Writer When Writing Makes You Want to Die, Part 1.
That’s a big deal. And it’s hard. And people don’t talk about how much difference it makes when you can do that.
Today’s way to become a better writer is simpler and more obvious, and yet brings a ton of benefits in the writing department that you may not have thought of.
Here it is, easy-peasy:
The Benefits of Reading
Seriously, reading lots makes you a better writer. It sounds like fantasy, but you pick up language as you go. The more you read different writing styles and new words, the more those styles and words percolate in your brain until eventually you’ll find yourself picking them out of thin air when you go to write or speak.
Some of the benefits of reading include:
It improves your vocabulary.
I learned the word “sprangled” from Margaret Mitchell in Gone With the Wind just a few years ago when I read it for the first time. My Scrivener dictionary doesn’t even recognize it, but it’s a great word that means to spread in different directions or spread out. (According to Urban Dictionary it means a state of utter drunkenness, but don’t listen to them.) However, reading won’t help you learn how to pronounce words you didn’t know before, so maybe look up how to say them before you say en-com-PASS instead of en-COM-pus in intelligent company … although you certainly wouldn’t be the first brilliant (ahem) person to mispronounce a few words because you learned them all from reading.
It improves your grammar.
Don’t know where to put that comma? Confused about the difference between affect and effect? Baffled by semicolons? Just as with vocab, reading is a great way to become more familiar with proper grammar. As you read, you see proper usage over and over, and your subconscious begins to soak it up. The more you read, the more you’ll learn, and the deeper you’ll cement the stuff you already know. Over time, as you keep practicing with writing, you’ll find that you have more to draw from than those basic sentences that you thought were the only thing you knew how to write.
It helps you learn to sit on your butt and focus on one thing that doesn’t have a bunch of doodads to distract you.
In the age of smartphones and Facebook, this is becoming an ever-more elusive skill, and it’s one you desperately need for writing. You have to be able to sit and chill and live with your thoughts. You have to be able to stay there and not get up to go do that other thing that has to be done right this minute when you feel like it does. You need to learn to focus, and reading will encourage that.
It introduces you to unfamiliar turns of phrase that will expand your ideas about what’s possible with language.
Know what genre is especially good for this?
If you haven’t been in the habit of reading poetry because your English teacher made you read incredibly boring and hard to understand poets like Chaucer, Tennyson, and T.S. Eliot, you have my sympathy. But please, poetry is not all like that. Some of it is quite delightful, and because it’s based around rhythm and word play, you can learn a lot from it.
I’m lucky enough to be blessed with two wonderful poet-friends, both of whom write poetry that manages to be both wonderfully light and incredibly deep at the same time. They have both even read it to me and other friends at an epic gathering a couple of years ago. (Reading aloud is a great way to improve both your reading and your performance skills (which you might need, even as an introverted writer …).)
Both of them have books available that I highly recommend, and while both are my friends, I don’t get anything if you buy their books. I’m just telling you because they made me want to read more poetry.
If you’d rather read dead poets, try:
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Collected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay
There are also two fascinating biographies of Edna St. Vincent Millay if you read her poetry and find yourself interested in her as a person:
Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford
What Lips My Lips Have Kissed by Daniel Mark Epstein
Zen in the Art of Writing includes a few of his poems. (This is also a great book for anybody who’s having difficulty with writing; it’s all about relaxing and learning to have a playful attitude toward it.) Ray Bradbury’s novels often read like poetry as well; Dandelion Wine is one of my favorites.
So You’re Convinced! And You Want to Read More. Now What?
I’ve been devouring books by the cartload every week since I was a kid. I’d come home from a family trip to the library with 17 books and whiz through them all in a week or two. “When are we going back to the library?”
But if you’re not naturally much of a reader and you want to start doing it more, you might have to do some thinking about how to add it to your life. Here are some things to consider:
Make a reading routine.
Can you read while you eat breakfast? What about on your lunch break? What about before bed?
Before falling asleep is one of the best times to fit some reading in. It calms your mind, helps you put all the stresses of the day away, and makes you sleepy. I read every night before bed (and at breakfast, and on my lunch break, and while waiting for my food to cook, and on the train …). It’s a great way to cool down from the day and relax, plus it gives me time away from the glaring screen of the computer before I fall asleep (shown to help you do so more easily).
Give yourself easy access to books.
Get a Kindle. Years ago, I swore I would never do that. But in the past few years I found myself buying more and more short e-books and reading them on my computer in Kindle Cloud Reader. Finally last month I got so frustrated with reading on my computer instead of being able to sit on the couch that I bought a Kindle. I won’t be giving up paper books any time soon, and I’m still getting used to the Kindle, but overall I like it, and if you’re more of a gadget geek than a reader, it’s a fun way to carry a pile of books with you (it’s certainly lighter). Plus, if you don’t like any of the books you already have, you can buy a new one anywhere with Wifi.
Experiment with other types of reading than what you’re used to.
If you mostly read nonfiction, try to find some fiction you like. Tim Ferriss has a great post about novels for people who don’t like fiction here. I can’t speak to how well these translate for people who don’t normally like fiction, but I’m a fan of Ender’s Game, Dune, and Fahrenheit 451. If you want to be a better writer, and you’re not reading fiction, you’re really selling yourself short, because there are things it can teach you that you’re just not going to see as much in nonfiction. Fiction (like poetry) experiments with language more, as well as
Analyze what you read.
You’re not just reading for fun; you’re reading to learn. Pay closer attention to what’s happening with the words, to what you like and don’t like. Benjamin Franklin taught himself to become a better writer by copying essays he liked and then trying to rewrite them from a short outline he’d made while reading. He also experimented with turning prose pieces into poetry and vice versa. You might benefit simply from reading Ben Franklin. 😉
What are you reading right now that you love? What’s on your list next? I’m alway looking for my next book of the moment.