Last week I wondered what’s the one thing I’d say to someone who asked me how to be a better writer?
The answer came almost immediately. Read.
Reading makes us better writers. It’s just how it works, like how we pick up a language faster when we travel to a country where it’s spoken. As we read, we effortlessly absorb nuances of grammar, syntax, rhythm, and style along with information and inspiration. And whether you’re writing a paper, an email, a poem, or a statement of purpose, I promise: reading makes it easier (industry secret: it might also make it more fun).
Writing is useful in any career or course of study—from neuroscience to business, pharmacy to architecture. Writing lets us express our unique voices and exchange ideas with others. It helps us to share what’s inside, to participate and collaborate. Reading, then, helps us learn from others and discover ideas. Bonus: reading helps us relax, which makes it easier to write later on (it’s also hard to multitask when we’re reading, which can be a good thing).
Reading is like exercise for the imagination, and imagination makes writing interesting. To exercise this muscle as you read, allow yourself to develop a picture of what you’re reading in your mind’s eye. Pay attention to what grabs you—notice those moments where the writing excites you, draws you in, makes you feel and think. What about the writing do you especially enjoy? What works for you? Notice, too, what turns you off; notice when what you’re reading gets boring or where you stop paying attention. As a writer, what would you have done differently?
Of course, one of the best things about reading good writing is that you don’t have to think about it. The worlds that unfold as you read, the process of learning something new, the emotions that come up—they just happen. Writing can be the same way. Writing can be as enjoyable as reading. Writing can—dare I say—feel good.
If you want to become a better—and possibly happier—writer, then read. Read as much as you can. Read books. Read mysteries, adventure stories, history books, biographies. Re-read the books you loved growing up (this one is especially fun). Read science fiction, read metaphysical books, read poetry. Read online columns, essays, and blogs. Read what you like. Read what compels you. Read in your own language; read in other languages. Read the books your professors assign (as much as you can, at least). Let yourself read something else too. Read random books you see in the library. Read magazines, read music reviews, read the paper. Read whatever you want.
Listen, too. Listen to people talk. Listen to podcasts while you make dinner. On road trips or plane flights, listen to audiobooks. Listen to song lyrics. Listening is like reading, just as speaking is like writing.
Important: let yourself read slowly sometimes. Remember that time spent reading equals better writing. Reading good writing is an investment in yourself as a writer and expressive human being. Reading is like fuel for the gas tank, like food and water for the body. Then, when we sit down to write, the time we spend reading comes back to us amplified. Somehow, almost magically, it becomes easier to write.
By exercising the muscle of the imagination through reading, we get in shape to write. And then it just happens. You sit down at your notebook or computer, ask yourself a few questions, let your mind go empty for a bit—and the words just start flowing. Try it out—for a few days, for a month, for longer. Let yourself read. Let yourself enjoy it. Allow yourself to take that time, at least a little bit, every day. Then see what happens when you sit down to write.
It might, quite possibly, change everything.
Ivy Eyes Editing