Reading is the Best Teacher for Authors
Guest Post by Irene Watson
Anyone who wants to be a writer must learn how to write well, and the best teachers of writing are great writers. To access the great writers, all that is required is a lot of reading. Reading teaches authors how to write well by making style, structure, plot, organization, and the many other elements that make up good writing become embedded in the author’s mind.
Too many times I have heard authors tell me “I hate to read but I love to write.” What is wrong with that statement? First of all, it is difficult to know if your writing is successful if you have nothing to measure it against. Reading other authors—not just current and popular ones, or writing that is quickly written for blogs or journal articles, but truly great writers (classics and modern recognized books)—can help a writer to learn more about writing than anything else.
It’s a common misconception that to be a writer, you need to take creative writing classes. While writing classes have their value, first, I want to point out that Charles Dickens (or Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, etc.) never took a creative writing class. Secondly, while there are many fine writing instructors out there, most writing classes are organized as writing workshops where students trade and critique each other’s writing. While this method is somewhat effective, I firmly believe you are less likely to learn from a student in the same class, who is equally trying to learn how to write, as you will learn effectively from someone who already writes well.
Especially among self-published authors, I see many badly written books that make it clear their authors have read very few similar books in the same genre they are writing. If you are going to write a children’s book, you need to know something about children’s books. The best way to acquire that knowledge is to read about a hundred children’s books in the same category you are writing.
For example, if you are going to write a children’s fantasy book, you will probably want to read “The Wizard of Oz,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Chronicles of Narnia”—all classics, as well as popular children’s books today, including the “Harry Potter” series and many others. That way you can determine what about these books is magical and makes them appealing. The same is true whether you’re writing self-help, romance, mystery, or even serious non-fiction books such as history or science. No matter how good your information or plot is, the presentation is what will make it effective and readable. Good writing is just as important in non-fiction as fiction, just like the presentation makes the difference between a good and a bad documentary.
When I was in elementary school and first being taught to read and write, the teacher often had the students copy passages out of books or short paragraphs or stories she would write on the board. Part of the reason for this practice was to help us to work on our penmanship, but it also served to teach us style and sentence structure on a somewhat subconscious level.
Reading, and better yet, copying passages from great authors is a fundamental and extraordinarily helpful way to learn style. As an example of good style, I’ll use a couple of passages from one of Charles Dickens’ best novels, “Bleak House.” Depending on what kind of writing you want to do, however, will depend which authors’ style you may want to model. If you want to write science fiction, you might choose to copy passages from Michael Crichton or Ray Bradbury, or if writing horror, from Bram Stoker or Stephen King. It doesn’t matter if everyone thinks these authors are great or not. If they are books you find appealing and that have a following, then they are worth studying to determine what makes them effective. That said, take what is best or usable from other authors’ styles, but create your own style as well.
A wonderful passage from “Bleak House” is the second paragraph of the first chapter:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
I won’t go into detail here, but I doubt many people will think this descriptive passage ineffective. Dickens’ use of repetition provides a true description of fog that remains with the reader and also works as a metaphor for the foggy nature of the novel’s story where many secrets are hidden in a “foggy” past, and the brains of many of the characters, as well as the workings of social institutions, are “foggy.”
Another fabulous passage from Dickens that teaches writers much about style is toward the end of “Bleak House” when the main character Esther agrees to marry Mr. Jarndyce.
I put my two arms around his neck and kissed him; and he said was this the mistress of Bleak House; and I said yes; and it made no difference presently, and we all went out together, and I said nothing to my precious pet [Ada] about it.
In this passage, Dickens uses what has become known as the “And-And-And” device where he links the sentences together with “and” to build emotion in the scene. This technique should be used sparingly, but at a climactic scene where emotion needs to be conveyed, it can be incredibly powerful.
“Bleak House” is just one of hundreds of novels that can teach a writer, through reading and studying an author’s style, how to write effective prose. Anyone interested in Dickens’ style specifically would do well to find a copy of “Bleak House” that includes Vladimir Nabokov’s marvelous introduction based on his Cornell lectures in which he discusses Dickens style.
I chose the “And-And-And” device as an example precisely because it shows an effective use of the word “and.” All too often, I read authors who do not know when to use and when not to use “and.” That may sound ridiculous, but here are a few examples.
- I went to the door to open it, and the bellboy entered the room.
- Mary had to go to a funeral, and she bought a new dress to wear.
- He remembers she is looking at him, and he keeps a straight face.
The use of “and” is appropriate when two things are equal, such as “I like to eat at Joe’s Restaurant, and I like to eat at Marie’s Diner,” although in this case, if Joe’s Restaurant were fancy and Marie’s Diner were not, it might be more effective to say, “I like to eat at Joe’s Restaurant, but I also like to eat at Marie’s Diner.” In the sentences above, more effective phrasing would read this way:
1. When I went to the door to open it, the bellboy entered the room.
2. Mary had to go to a funeral, so she bought a new dress to wear.
Because Mary had to go to a funeral, she bought a new dress to wear.
3. He remembers she is looking at him, so he keeps a straight face.
When he remembers she is looking at him, he keeps a straight face.
Virginia Woolf, in her famous essay, “A Room of One’s Own” describes the purpose of sentences as: “a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes.” In the examples above, the misuse of “and” is equivalent to laying phrases or sentences next to each other, of showing the two phrases of the sentence are equal. Instead, using “so,” “because,” or “when” builds those domes Woolf talks about by showing how one sentence leads to another, by showing cause and effect, and by ultimately, moving the story or sentence and its meaning along.
I could say a great deal more about the value of reading the very best authors for style, plot, character development, and organization. I recommend reading constantly. Try to read a book a week. Try to read every book you can get your hands on that is similar to the book you are writing, and read a lot of books in different areas so you see diversity of style. If you find yourself reading bad books, ask yourself why they are bad and compare them to good books. Analyze what is good and what is bad. Learn from both good and bad writers on your way to becoming the best writer possible.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.