The Secret to Great Writing: Read
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
- Stephen King
Imagine for a second that you want to paint a picture of a swan, but have never seen a swan a day in your life. In fact, the only animal you’ve ever seen before is a jaguar. No matter, you are going to paint a swan. How do you think your painting will turn out?
What if you practiced painting every single day for hours? After all, practice makes perfect, right? So you spend every day painting jaguars and swans, even though you’ve still only seen a jaguar. Will your 50th swan painting look any more accurate than the first one? Nope, no matter how much you practice at painting, it’s no use if you don’t know what the right thing looks like.
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
As a kid, I had a teacher who told me, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” It sounds impossible to practice perfectly. After all, the fact that I was practicing meant that I couldn’t be perfect! His point, though, was that if you practiced and rehearsed bad techniques and form, you wouldn’t get any better at your craft—you’d just get better at doing all the wrong things that you practiced over and over again.
For a writer, this is where reading comes in. Just like you can’t expect yourself to paint a swan if you’ve never seen one before, you can’t expect to write well if you don’t know what good writing looks like!
If you want to be a good writer, read. Voraciously. And don’t limit yourself to reading the same genre you plan to write, either. Do you want to write a sci-fi thriller? Read a lot of sci-fi, but also read a lot of murder mysteries, and classics, and spy novels, and non-fiction, and satire. There’s no cookie cutter approach to literary success, but all good writing, regardless of style, has certain things in common that you’ll pick up on—even if it’s unconscious at first. The more your read, the better your mind will recognize the little nuances that make writing good.
Write the Kind of Book You’d Want to Read
Reading nonstop gives you insight into what readers enjoy. Companies pay millions of dollars to get into the minds of their customers—to find out what they want, what they like. You get to do that for free. All it takes is a trip to the library. You’ll also see what themes are overdone, which plot twists or metaphors are cliche, and how you can make your writing original and engaging.
Best of all, as a reader, all you have to do is write the kind of book that you would want to read. If you can succeed in that, the rest will follow. After all, the best person to judge what makes for a gripping, captivating read is someone who, well…reads.