You’ve probably heard that reading makes you a better writer. Here’s why:
It lets you analyze other people’s writing, their style, tone, word choice, format, and more. In other words, it lets you unlock some of the mystery of writing; it lets you see how others do it. Better yet, the more you read, the more styles you’ll have to choose from when you write. Go ahead and mimic other writers’ styles, see how they fit, try them on for size. Eventually, you’ll find a style that complements your natural gifts; without even trying you’ll create your own, unique voice.
But there’s more: Reading – both fiction and nonfiction – not only unlocks the mystery of writing, it can begin to unlock the mystery of life. Reading introduces you to new ideas, faraway places, other universes, and unexplored possibilities. It lets you meet people you otherwise wouldn’t, experience foods and fads and foolishness that aren’t a part of your everyday life. Reading lets you peer into other people’s families, work, sex lives, and marriages – the good, the bad, and the ewww. Reading let’s you know that you’re not alone. “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end,” said William Styron, the author of Sophie’s Choice. “You live several lives while reading it.”
Reading shouldn’t be a chore, though, and it shouldn’t be a snore – about reading a book, the movie producer Samuel Goldwyn once said, “I read part of it all the way through.” If you’re not enjoying a book, move on – life’s too short to force yourself to read the two new biographies of Hillary Clinton (Her Way and A Woman in Charge) when the author of The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, has a new book out (A Thousand Splendid Suns). So be picky – read what interests you – but take a risk here and there too by choosing authors you’re not familiar with, topics you’ve thought not your thing, and formats that may be new to you (read fiction all the time? try a biography; you’re big on 600-page histories? try an illustrated novel).
And don’t forget magazines. Yeah, The New Yorker is fantastic – quirky, interesting and elegant – and worth the investment, even if you have to pick up an issue several times to plow through the latest 20,000-word piece on the physiology of the Monarch butterfly. But don’t forget my former employer People magazine, where writers are trained to stuff as much information as possible into a sentence and paragraph (my editor called it “telegraphing”). People is pithy, upbeat, fun to read, and a great example of a type of excellent writing.
The writer Richard Steel said, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Stephen King said that reading “offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page.” Read robustly and your writing will become more robust, more worldly, and more interesting. It just will.
Note: So, what am I reading now? Well, I'm usually in the middle of several books at once and sometimes it can take me months to get through them all. Currently, I'm reading Christopher Hitchens' new book, God Is Not Great, Sense and Sensibility (I managed to get through high school without cracking it), the Collected Letters of Jessica Mitford, and a very fun first novel called Still Life With Husband by Lauren Fox. How about you? What's on your nightstand?
On a separate note, a number of Word Wise readers tell me they sometimes don't get my headlines - this week's is just a play on words on the great Carole King song from her "Tapestry" album, "Where You Lead" ("Where you lead, I will follow/ Anywhere that you tell me to/ If you need, you need me to be with you/ I will follow where you lead").