Editor’s note: this is a guest post by Brandon Monk of Read. Learn. Write.
I didn’t come to writing with a natural stride. I came to writing with a broken leg, standing up only with the help of two crutches underneath my arms.
My writer’s “leg” had been broken by years of writing for the wrong reasons. I wrote for good grades in school. I wrote email and text messages with poor grammar to get people off my back. I wrote for a legal system which enforces brevity and discourages artfulness.
Recently, I realized I needed to cure my “broken leg” (a.k.a. my broken writing habits). So, I went back to books. I read more in order to study how writers work. In the process, I learned why writers must read. They must read because reading and writing are interconnected. Reading is the medicine all writers must have on hand at all times. Reading heals all writers’ injuries and illnesses.
Writing Is Your “Proving Grounds”
In the world of the military, they have something called the “proving grounds,” where new weapons are tested before they are deployed. Missiles and computer targeting systems are used here so that they can be utilized in war later on, with greater confidence.
For a reader, their “proving grounds” should be the act of writing. A reader distinguishes himself and proves he is ready to use what he’s learned by actually writing. A writer explores what is true, and what will improve his/her life, by writing. Tactical “idea deployment” is only safe when it has been tested first. That “test” is writing.
Reading and Writing As The Opposite Ends of A “Cycle”
Do you remember being taught about the water cycle in school? Water in the atmosphere was once water in the oceans. Water in the oceans was once water filtering down a mountain stream.
Reading is the process by which you observe the “water cycle” of writing. You can learn how to be a better writer by “watching” the writing of another author. Finally, writing yourself is the process by which you begin to influence this writing cycle directly. This is powerful. You become the mountain that filters the stream (instead of just a bystander observing the stream). You can change the world this way.
These metaphors look at reading and writing as interconnected ideas (reading and writing are two ends of “a cycle”). That is crucial to understand. That is the first step. The next step is to understand how reading and writing interact with each other in a more practical way.
Let’s explore this idea by considering five reasons why writers must read.
1. Reading Teaches You How To Recognize Good Writing
Reading makes you intimately familiar with good writing. The more you read, the more you will begin to tell the difference between good and bad writing.
If reading a book isn’t the writers’ laboratory, it’s at least the writers’ “patent review application.” In a “patent review application,” the new idea is tested against similar inventions that came before it–in our case, the “prior” art. Reading, therefore, tests your ideas against the great writers of the past. By reading you prove, at least to yourself, that your writing has something to offer that is different from what came before it.
Reading tells you what an author did that worked. From there, you can develop your own opinions and find your own voice. The more you read, the more you’ll avoid writing foolishly.
2. Reading Exposes You To New Tools
Vocabulary is one of the building blocks of all good writing. New words are like tools that you can store away and pull out when needed. (For example, David Foster Wallace famously prepared epic lists of words he liked and stored them for later use.)
Books are an endless supply of new words. Don’t read with this end in mind, but, if you do read more, you will develop a knack for saying the exact thing you want to say. Words are tools to help increase the “exactness” of your writing. You can collect these tools through reading.
3. You’ll Never Have a Conversation With Your Favorite Dead Writer Unless You Read
Did you know it’s possible to have a conversation with any writer in the world, at any time you want? You can dictate the terms of the conversation, too.
Having troubling handling a particularly sticky situation in your writing, or your life? You can get an answer from any historical mentor you choose.
All you have to do is read and then re-read. Montaigne viewed his reading as conversations. I encourage a similar approach for writers. Read conversationally to find how a writer would comment on your writing–or life–challenges. Then, put the advice to use if you deem it worthy.
4. Read In Order To Better Know What You Might Like To Write
James Murphy gives good advice. He says that we shouldn’t be afraid to be labeled “pretentious.”
Don’t feel embarrassed by what you choose read. What you chose to read reveals your taste in writing.
This is brilliant advice for everyone. It is essential advice for writers. How can you know what you might like to write unless you read what you might like to write?
Read with a sense of wanting more–always.
This “wanting” will take your reading, and writing, to whole new levels.
5. You Need An “Ideal Reader” And, Unfortunately, You’re Not It
Alberto Manguel, an Argentine-born writer, created a concept called the “ideal reader” in his book A Reader on Reading. The ideal reader is the person best suited to read a given author’s work.
“Writers are never their own ideal reader,” Manguel says.
This means that all writers need help in order to be better appreciated. You will want the same help as a writer, so, offer it first to other writers. Something like karma is at work when you do this.
Give what you hope to receive. Read an author’s writing the way you would want your writing to be read. One day, the respectful investment you put into reading someone else’s work will be reciprocated when you begin to write.
Remember my writer’s “broken leg”? Well, it’s been healing. The best medicine for my broken leg, I discovered, was reading.
Today, I come to my writing with a feeling that my “leg” will heal. I will get better, and when I do get better, I will run. I will also be thankful for my ability to run because I have been on crutches for so long.
I wish the same (and more) for you.
Brandon Monk is an attorney and reader in a small city in Texas. He writes about reading, learning, and writing at readlearnwrite.com. Feel free to reach out to him @readlearnwrite on Twitter.