Reading Better to Write Better

by Site Author

kerouac-on-dostoyevsky

I had coffee recently with a writer—a real writer—with two published books under her belt. I asked her how people become better writers. But I asked the question indirectly. I first explained the concept of deliberate practice, that only a certain kind of practice can actually improve performance. I then asked her what deliberate practice is for a writer—what kind of practice makes someone a better writer?

Her answer surprised me. She said that deliberate practice in writing is deliberate reading.

She reads often and actively, taking notes, and paying close attention to the craft of the writer. She even types in other people’s writing into her computer, collecting paragraphs that are skillfully written, and dissecting them in Microsoft Word. She bolds and italicizes pieces, breaking them apart until she understands how the piece was written.

And she is not alone in such a practice. The photograph above is a book of short stories by Dostoyevsky, owned by Jack Kerouac. The stories were Kerouac’s favorite, and he extensively annotated them. “Next to the word ‘fond’ Kerouac [wrote]: ‘fond always gives a batty tone — just right.’ ”

Other famous writers have had similar habits. For instance, “Hunter S. Thompson… used a typewriter to copy down The Great Gatsby, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, in order to learn about the writing styles of the authors and feel what writing a novel was like.”

In the end, the conversation inspired me to read actively, too. I’ve started to notice the tricks of the trade around me. I notice how some podcasts hook listeners in with their opening segments. I notice certain phrases in academic papers, phrases that I then use in my own work. And I now make it a point to collect effective paragraphs from popular non-fiction, paragraphs that I wish I had written myself. Perhaps with enough practice, one day I’ll write that well.