What to Read to Improve Your Writing

by Barbara Behan

What to Read to Improve Your Writing

Seen at a local thrift store. This will be on the test.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”  Stephen King

One of the first things aspiring writers learn is that to write well, they also need to read.  A lot.

In her classic book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron said that artists and writers need to fill their minds regularly with new images–sensory experiences that give us raw material to draw from when we create.

Reading is a powerful way to do this.  Consider the richness of images in, say, The Grapes of Wrath.  I read the book when I was a teenager.   Decades later, I remember a bounty of images when I think of the book.  Green.  Brown.  Dry.  Cold.  Wet.  Suffering.  Reading the story, we see the heat and desolation of the Dust Bowl.  We feel the cold and wet of the Joads’ boxcar.

Writers are also admonished, constantly, to write what they know.   Even though we weren’t actually in California with the Joads, Steinbeck’s writing is so good that we feel as if we were.  The book’s images go into the file folder in our brains marked “What I Know.”   We can draw on these images as certainly as we draw on what we “know” about last night’s dinner.   In this way, reading adds profoundly to our data bank of writing material.

Reading also, obviously, exposes us to language.  Children learn language by exposure.  They pick up their parents’ accents, vocabulary, and bad grammar.  In similar way, if we read bad writing for a long time (no matter how old we are), eventually our brains are going to “learn” it.

There’s an acronym used in computer programming —  GIGO — that stands for “garbage in, garbage out.” It means that if you put messy code into a computer, you’ll get correspondingly bad programming results.

It’s the same with our brains.  If we feed them good language and rich, relevant images, our writing will be better than if, say, they consume National Enquirer.

So, when you’re looking for reading that supports your writing, consider these ideas:

  • Language is more important than subject matter.  A well-written cookbook is better than a badly written biography of Plato.
  • Older is better than newer.  In the last ten or fifteen years, publishers have basically stopped editing books — have you noticed?
  • Prize-winners are better than best-sellers.  As a one-year reading program, a person could do worse than to read fifty Pulitzer prize-winning novels.  Prize winners are chosen for literary quality.  Best-sellers?  Not necessarily.
  • Think about reading through a list of most-recommended literature for college students.  I’ve been working on one of these for over twenty years, and I’m amazed at how it’s enriched my life.
  • Online content doesn’t count.  It’s too fast, too short, and too prone to mistakes.

What do you think?  What would you add to this list?