When people ask me the one thing they can do to improve their writing and I tell them to read more, I often receive shocked looks in return. Is it really that simple?
Well, no, of course it isn’t. But reading—and reading well—can make a huge difference to your writing life. Here are seven tips to ensure you’re doing it right:
1) Read the kind of writing you aspire to produce yourself. As a PR practitioner, find the very best PR writers out there and devour their work. If you produce annual reports, scour the world for the most interesting best-written annual reports in history and read them! Perhaps you have a non-fiction book you want to produce? Read a plethora of non-fiction books until you find a model you want to emulate. This type of reading is never wasted time!
2) Be sure to read only those books you enjoy. There’s no honour in plowing through Charles Dickens if he bores you senseless. Ditto for Albert Camus, Jane Austen, and Ernest Hemingway. Your life is not an English 100 class—and reading “obligatory” novels you don’t like will only make you feel trapped. If you enjoy Jane Austen (as I do), well, sure, read her. But if you don’t, well, don’t. I promise you that no reading taskmaster is ever going to call you to account. Reading should be a pleasure. Read what you like so you read more, not less!
3) Read only a limited amount of crap. Tip #2 notwithstanding, you should read only small amounts of badly written material. The reason? You will start to sound like the authors you read. Bottom line: a little bit of People Magazine is okay, as is a small amount of authors like John Grisham, who write for plot, not finely crafted sentences. But mainly try to stick with writers whom you honestly admire.
4) Never feel obliged to finish material you don’t like. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a hard time walking away from things I’ve started and haven’t finished. Nevertheless, I’ve now learned to close the covers on books that don’t “grab” me quickly enough. For example, I recently tried The Idiot by Elif Batuman. Although the book had earned rave reviews, by about page 80, I still wasn’t engaged. So, I returned it to the library. True, I couldn’t regain the time lost reading 80 pages I didn’t enjoy. But this was less “costly” than reading 429 pages I disliked.
5) Keep a record of what you have read. I have kept a book journal for the last 20 years. I don’t always remember to record every single book but I try really hard. My journal used to be a spiral-bound notebook; I switched to a computer-based record about five years ago. I record the name of the book, its author, the publishing year, the first sentence of the book (sometimes a bit more) and one or two of my own thoughts. It takes me less than five minutes and I cannot tell you how many times this record has proven to be inordinately useful.
6) Have a good system for tracking the names of books you want to read. I like to have my “future reading” list with me at all times, so I’ve created three entries in the address book of my iPhone:
- Books, fiction
- Books, nonfiction
- Books, young adult
As the iPhone is always in my purse or pocket, this allows to me pop into any bookstore without planning! When possible, I prefer to buy books for my Kindle but having the list in one portable, electronic place is still incredibly handy.
7) Give books away when you’re finished. I’m a firm believer that our lives shouldn’t be filled with stuff we don’t need. When my husband and I rebuilt our house a few years ago we went through two massive book “thinnings.” I’ve kept a small bookshelf of reference works and books about writing, and a handful of books I adore, but everything else I give to friends when I’m done.
Finally, one important P.S. I’m no longer a member of a book club because I dislike being told what to read—especially when there’s a deadline. If a book club works for you, well, make that item #8. If not, don’t feel guilty about it! Reading should be about enjoyment, not guilt.