My Monday posts are all about finding ways to make writing part of our daily lives, of living the writer’s life whether we have the privilege of being at our writing desks or all day or whether we have to snatch a few moments to scribble between the demands of our 9-5 jobs. It’s about having a mindset which says:
I’m always writing.
One of the times when you’re writing (nourishing your writer’s heart and mind), is when you are reading. It’s part of the training – part of the 10,000 hours that will make you a brilliant writer. Never, ever let anyone tell you that reading is anything but a vital part of your life, as important as food and water and oxygen.
But there’s reading and then there’s reading like a writer. When I was training to be an English teacher the phrase in vogue was active reading. It’s a little bit teachery, but it’s not a bad term. Reading like a writer means participating in the process. It means never being passive.
Here are some tips for how you can do that:
Read with a pencil in your hand
If you’re someone who likes to keep the copies of your books pristine, skip this bit of advice. This is what I tell my students:
deface your books.
Scribble stars and questions marks in the margins, argue with the writer, underline things, fold over pages, highlight sections, stick in post-its. Have a constant dialogue with the book you are reading. Somehow, having a pencil in your hand encourages this two-way exchange between you the reader and the text in front of you.
Read the kind of books you write
Chances are that you write the books you write because those are the books you love to read. That’s certainly true of me. Some people would advise against reading things that are too similar to your own work in case you too heavily influenced and lose your voice. I believe that by enjoying and learning from people in your particular field, your own craft will grow. Breast-stroke swimmers don’t study divers to improve their technique…Reading the books you love to write will not only teach you lots about how to write your stories better but will also remind you of why you love writing. That said, you should also…
Read the kind of books you don’t write
I’m a great believer in learning from different art forms and different styles. Maybe the breast-stroke swimmer could learn something from the diver after all – I’ll have to find one and ask. I know that when I read poetry, it sharpens my understanding of how words word and sound, that when I read thrillers, I learn about plot, that when I read picture books with my little girl I get right back to the basics of what makes a damn good story – and, by my reckoning, if you can capture the attention of a 17 month old (especially a wriggly one like mine), you’re a genius.
Identify your weaknesses and study those who are strong in those areas
In my early days as a writer, I had to work hard at plot. I was an English teacher trained to focus on language. I thought that books were about language. I’d forgotten that, first and foremost, books are about stories and that language the toolbox through which that story is communicated. So I set about reading authors who are brilliant at plot. It might be that you are struggling with dialogue or at making your characters real or at writing brilliant beginnings. Whatever it is, find writers you admire, who are brilliant at what you want to do better – then go and sit at their feet for a while and learn.
Talk about what you’re reading to anyone who will listen
There’s something about externalising your thoughts about books that helps you to clarify and develop your own understanding. That’s why teaching literature is such a wonderful job. When I was revising for my Oxford Finals my mother would walk around The University Parks with me and tell me to talk to her about everything I was learning. It didn’t matter whether or not she understood what I was rabbiting on about, what mattered was that I was getting it out of my head and articulating it and so solidifying my knowledge and making connections – and often coming up with new ideas. Book groups are brilliant for this but just talk to anyone who will listen!
Be open to learning something from every single book you ever read, even if it’s not the best book in the world. Ever writer has something to teach us.
But also be bold
One of the most annoying comments my beloved husband makes when he’s finished reading a novel is, ‘I could have written that.’ Or worse. ‘I could have written that better.’ I get cross because I fear that, like many people, he underestimates how hard it is to write a good novel – indeed, how hard it is to write a goodish flawed novel. But his attitude is not a bad one. For a while I was so much in awe of other writers and their books that it made me scared to write – I could never come up with anything that good, I thought. Perhaps this is a Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus Moment. I imagine it’s part of the reason we don’t get the top jobs or the top salaries. So, be a little bold – a little cocky even: whenever you read a book, even if you think it’s the most perfect book in the world, ask yourself what you would have done differently – better, even.
Don’t dismiss any bit of text you come across in your day – read everything
This is another bit of advice I give my pupils. We are surrounded by words and stories. Advertisements in magazines. The back of cereal packets. The names of take-aways and corner shops and hairdressers. A newspaper article. A blog. A tweet. A billboard. Be curious and critical of every text you encounter and use it to make you think about how words and stories work and how this can inform your writing.
Learn something that will help your writing from a text you read today