Do You Want to Become a Better Writer? Read (A Lot) More
Attempting to write a book without avidly reading is like trying to pull water from a dried-up well. There’s nothing there.
If you want to write anything—whether it’s a tweet, blog post, or book—you need to have a storehouse of words to pull from. You need to have in your possession a robust vocabulary, stories to help you illustrate your point, and the only way to build such a repertoire is by reading.
Now, don’t misread this advice as “Master the English language” or “Obtain a degree in Literature.” That’s not what I’m saying at all.
What I’m saying is, quite literally, read, read, and read. This is the second best thing you can do for your writing apart from actually writing. Filling yourself up with words is the best way for you to fuel your writing.
If you want to become a better writer, you need to be a voracious reader. From books, magazines, long-form journalism, and everything in between, reading will help you develop your skills as a writer.
Before you go off and pick up a random book from your shelf or Kindle, there’s a method you need to go about your reading. Reading, in general, is helpful, but if you want to write the best possible book you can, you want to have a plan in place first. Here are five steps to help you get started.
1. Start Now
The best time to start reading is now—even if you have only an idea. The words you read, the ideas you explore, and the concepts you learn will become a part of your storehouse of knowledge, ready for you to pull from.
Reading is a long-term plan that will not only influence your life for the better, but a plan that will greatly enhance your ability to write. Learning from those who are better at the craft of writing will help you build your vocabulary, understand different writing styles, and improve your own writing ability.
2. Prepare to Keep Notes
We will explore this in detail later, so I don’t want to provide a ton of details here. However, when you are reading, be prepared to keep notes.
I’m talking not only about writing down actual notes, but marking the articles and books you read as you go along. Highlight what you read. Dog ear your page. Write notes in your margins. And keep track of different thoughts or ideas you have—even if you think they’re totally random.
Also, whether you use notecards, a physical journal, or something digital like Evernote or a Word document, keep track of your notes. Categorize them the best you can in themes. This will help you observe patterns in your reading and thought process. It will also help you easily and quickly pull from the ideas when you need them to help round out what you’re writing.
3. Read Broadly
Read (basically) anything. Reading articles and books from different fields and genres will help you become a better writer.
Why? For many reasons: it helps you develop a larger vocabulary, find inspiration, and see how others who write in your genre share their ideas.
Drink from the wells of classic literature, stay abreast of the best-sellers list in your genre, and read the books your family and friends are reading—even if you hate them.
Reading broadly will stretch you as a writer. It will provide you with new perspectives on how you can best get your message across.
4. Read Specifically on Your Topic
In order to write well on any given topic, you must thoroughly understand your topic of choice. I’m not saying you need to obtain an advanced degree in your field. But I am saying you will need to invest time in self-studying your area of interest.
New York Times best-selling author, Timothy Keller, suggests that authors carefully read 20 to 30 books on their subject and skim another 20 to 30 books before writing. This is solid advice for any genre, especially non-fiction books.
Reading this widely on your specific topic will help you grasp your subject matter, avoid repeating what others have said, and best observe patterns you can highlight in your writing.
5. Make a Plan
Okay, so are you ready to read… a lot? I hope so.
But before getting started, take a deep breath, collect your thoughts, and make a plan for what you’re going to read. There’s no way you can possibly read everything that has been or will be written. Besides, not everything that’s going to be written actually deserves to be read. So you want to choose wisely.
This way you can ensure you read a lot, read broadly, and read specifically on your topic. Here are some tips to help you get started.
The foundation of your reading plan will be built upon the genres you pick to read. There’s no rule of thumb for this first step other than reading broadly and specifically. Here’s what this looks like.
First, you need to select books from fiction and non-fiction. I’m not a huge fan of fiction myself. But I’ll read fiction to inspire my creativity and learn from master storytellers.
Now that you have the two types of books you will read, the second step is to pick the genres you want to read. Here’s a short list to consider:
From the different genres available to choose from, I encourage you to pick four to six for your plan. For your list, I further suggest focusing on the genres you most enjoy and will prepare you to write your book. With this being said, choose one to two genres outside your normal topics to help broaden your reading.
Make Reading a Habit
Reading is more than a task to be accomplished. If you want to be a writer, it should become a natural part of your life.
The habit of reading will look different among people. Personally, I’m married, have five kids, work, and volunteer, so the amount of time I have available to read is slim to none.
I know your life is different than mine, but I know you face similar challenges in creating time to pursue different activities. However, reading is one you cannot afford to miss if you want to write a book.
Listen to your life. Look for ways you can work in time to read. Whether it’s taking a book with you on your commute, listening to an audiobook in your car, or turning the T.V. off after dinner to score a few precious moments to read, identify natural ways you can incorporate the habit of reading.
You may be able to read one or more books a week, one book per month, or you might have to start smaller and aim to read various articles and perhaps one book per quarter.
It’s best to set realistic reading goals and aim for a smaller goal at first. I would rather you be set up to succeed than crash and burn in a fire of disappointment.
Choose Your Titles
This is the fun part. You’ve picked your genres. You have a goal of how many books you can realistically read. Now it’s time to pick what books you will read in each genre.
For this step, I suggest choosing three to five books from the genres you chose and purchasing them, if you can. If not, check them out from a library or borrow them from your family and friends.
These books don’t have to be set in stone. You can rearrange what you want to read. The point of this step is to have books on hand for you to read when you’re ready.
A lot of people I speak to believe you have to finish the book you started. This isn’t true for me.
Currently, on my nightstand beside my bed, there is a stack of at least a dozen books I’m reading from, and there are nearly 20 on my desk behind my computer.
I will read some of these books from beginning to end, others I’ll start and stop, and some I’ll start and then close them for good.
Reading is a fun and fluid activity. If you’re not enjoying a book or you already grasped what the autho
r is trying to say in the first 50 pages, feel free to put it down. There’s no reason to plod through a book if you don’t have to.
My opinions on the importance of reading are not new. They have been expressed by countless writers far better than myself.
So I will leave you with the words of Stephen King, one of history’s most distinguished authors:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
There are many writing hacks that will help you become a better writer. But reading is one you must embrace.