#OnWriting: Read

Don’t have time to read? You’re not going to be a writer.

You might feel like a writer, you might put words on a page, read them back, edit them, take them to workshops or open mic slots for feedback, you might edit them again. But you won’t develop your writing skills. You’ll find yourself circling around the same material, writing in the same style and polishing your work to the point where not only has it lost its shine but also any spark or sense of energy that prompted you to write it in the first place.

Writers need to read:

  • Reading is the key way of learning writing craft. You can go on creative writing courses and attend workshops which will bring the learning aspects of reading to the fore and give you a deeper understanding of a writer’s craft, but you still need to do the actual reading.
  • Reading exposes writers to new ideas, new ways of approaching a topic or experimental ways of writing.
  • Reading exposes writers to failure: reading a poem that doesn’t work for you gives you the opportunity to unpick where it went wrong and avoid those errors in your own work.
  • Reading’s easy: books and e-readers are portable and audio books are a good alternative.
  • Reading doesn’t need a huge time commitment. Those minutes when you’re stuck in a waiting room, sitting on public transport, in traffic or develop the habit of reading a poem last thing at night or first thing in the morning.
  • Reading needn’t just be about works on a page. Next time you’re watching a film or your favourite soap opera, listen to the dialogue, think about the scenery and camera work. Would you have shot that scene from that angle? Would you have taken that indoor scene outside? How did the dialogue convey the information the viewer needed to follow the plot?
  • It stops you being that loser who gets muted on social media, who becomes the poet open mic organisers struggle to find a slot for or who doesn’t get invited for drinks after workshop simply because constant self-promotion and failure to engage with or support other writers signal that you’re a writer with no interest in developing craft.

Reading differentiates the writer from the wannabe. I’ve seen the excuse from someone that they didn’t have time to read because they had a full time job, time spent reading was time not spent writing and they were not a full time writer. Very few writers are full time writers. Income from writing and publishing has dropped and most writers have a secondary job to supplement their writing income and not all those secondary jobs are part-time.

But reading isn’t about the number of books read. Skimming 40 poems a week won’t make you a better writer. Taking one poem, reading it carefully, thinking about why you like/don’t like it, working out why a particular phrase or image stuck with you after that first reading, returning to it, working out why the less memorable sections weren’t as memorable, looking at the marriage between form and content, is what will make you a better writer.

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