One Tired, Tarnished Writing Tip…with Six Twists
That’s It. That’s the tired tip.
Probably the most common piece of advice given to wannabe and novice writers. The advice is generic…read, read, read.
Yes, and then . . .?
What does reading do for our writing?
Now when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf.
The unstated purposes of “read, read, read” for writers are
- to explore all genres of writing,
- to identify qualities in writing that appeal to us as readers,
- to emulate those fine qualities in our own writing, and
- ultimately, as Conroy suggests, to internalize our reading so we change and become better persons ourselves.
How can you read more, high quality writers without spending a fortune at Books-a-Million, Amazon.com, Ex Libris, or other on-line purveyors? Try these six twists based on that one tired tip.
1. Scour the new book shelves at your local library.
I walk through the swinging doors of my library in Mays Landing, NJ, a small town at the headwaters of the Egg Harbor River, and immediately face the new book shelves, right next to the BiblioCafé with its selection of teas, coffees, and snacks. Four twelve-foot long shelves showcase the newest book acquisitions—both fiction and nonfiction. A veritable storehouse of treasure.
Here’s one title that grabbed my attention a while ago: Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession (2010) by Craig Childs. (Okay, I admit it. I gravitate to non-fiction books.) These strong words in the title grab my attention: finder-keepers (flashback to childhood arguments with my siblings); tale (here comes a good story); plunder (who’s going to make off with the money, the jewels, the damsel in distress?); obsession (in the desert? What?) What drama. What tension. Don’t you want to know more about this?
This book is cram-packed with Childs’ exquisite writing. Look carefully. Study his voice. Analyze his craft.
3. Read first pages.
Pick up random new books with titles that catch your eye and interest and read the first few pages while standing at the shelves. Which snippets beg you to read more? What questions pop in your mind? Don’t you want to know the answers? Would you like to write like this?
Pat Conroy in My Reading Life says,
I consider myself a small-time aficionado of first and last pages.
Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, suggests that the first five pages, first five sentences even, of a manuscript can tell an editor whether he or she should pursue reading the whole book. Look at these new books and ask yourself, “What is in these first five pages that made the editor choose this book for publication.” Look for the author’s voice, ideas, art and poetic flair, of course, but also look for writing craft.
4. Follow the Trail. Request books.
The Mays Landing, NJ, our big small-town library, casts a wide net when it comes to borrowing books. I wanted to read more of Chris Child’s writing, so Librarian Sue checked and found Childs’ The Secret Knowledge of Water (2000) in a college library some miles away. Through inter-library Loan, I got the book the next day. Dried out water holes in a dessert? What could be more boring? But listen to the language.
An early memory of the low Sonoran Desert where I was born is of my mother walking me out on a trail. I remember three things, each a snapshot without motion or sound. The first is lush, green cottonwood trees billowing like clouds against the stark backdrop of bluffs and boulders. The second is a tadpole worrying the mud in a water hole just about dry. Each tadpole, like the eye of a raven, waited black and moist against the sun. The third is water streaming over carved rock into a pool clear as window glass. These three images are what defined the desert for me. At an early age it was obvious to me that water was the element of consequence, the root of everything out here.
Childs’ first person point of view makes this narrative personal. You can almost touch the early morning scene he describes: mom and child walking hand-in-hand to hunt for treasures obscured by years of desert dust. I not only like the description, I like the orderliness and tightness of the writing. And I like the profound concluding statement that portends surprising things to come. I want to read more.
5. Savor exquisite writing.
As you read, look for exquisite language: precise choice of words and phrases, well put-together sentences, original similes and metaphors, and surprising elements. Copy these selections into your writer’s quote notebook and decide why you like them. (You do have a personal quote book, don’t you?)
6. Mimic good writers.
When you read an exquisite selection, mimic it. You will grow as a writer. Can you write a similar scene using your own words and experiences?
You cannot become a terrific writer just—poof!—out of thin air. It takes something pre-existing, some structural savvy, some foundational in technique, some underlying sense of the possibilities of language before you can strip off your topcoat and tap dance across the pages like Fred Astaire.
So, yes, wannabe writers, read, read, read. Make friends with your local library and librarians. They will quickly learn your interests and suggest other good reading possibilities. Then collect words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and mimic them. Make that tired tip—read—help you become a better writer!
Something Else To Read:
Two Writing Teachers: Beginning of the Year Read Alouds This blog’s tagline: “A Meeting Place for a World of Reflective Writers.” That sounds good to me. I am not teaching now, but these ideas are still good for mature developing writers.
Don’t forget to look at children’s books. Some of them have exquisite vocabulary and sentence structure use. The TWT blog suggests read alouds to use in the classroom, but you can review these same books to see why TWT recommendsthem.
TWT gives excellent suggestions for helping students keep reading logs. You have a reading log, don’t you? Reading logs are the perfect place to jot down your reflections on what you read and to copy words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that appeal to you.
Something Else to View: How [Reading] Fiction Makes Our Brains Better
What’s your favorite quote from a book you have read recently?