by Kelsie Engen
The moment you think you know everything about writing, that’s the moment your writing plateaus.
Last week I talked about why writers should read voraciously. But that was a post focused on fiction. You know, reading in the genre you write. For instance, if you write fantasy, you ought to be familiar with fantasy and read it near daily.
But writers are, first and foremost, readers, and while it’s useful to read any fiction we can get our hands on . . .
Shouldn’t writers also read about writing?
Surprisingly, there are some people who don’t think writers should read about writing. (Or maybe they just find it boring.)
I mean, isn’t it kind of like reading about work or talking shop? Well . . . yeah. But there’s a reason we’re assigned reading in school, and there’s a reason that people “talk shop”: it’s how we’re taught new skills, understand what we’re doing wrong, how others do it right (or wrong), and why we aren’t good enough–yet.
Many of us writers never went to school for writing. Sure, we may have written the required essays in high school English class, or wrote a required short story in elementary school, all that jazz. But most writers these days don’t take the educational route and go to college and get a creative writing degree or an MFA in literature. Instead, today’s authors may study “literature” naturally through their independent reading and learn quite a bit. But at some point in your writing journey, you need a teacher. And that’s what books on writing do.
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” ― Ernest Hemingway, The Wild Years
1. You learn new skills.
Most obviously, the first reason you should read about writing is to learn something new. Even if you’ve been writing for twenty years, you may not have learned much about structure. Or you may not have learned exactly when to use a semi-colon, or you may not have learned how to write a short story.
All those things can strengthen whatever writing you do. Don’t assume you know it all–you never will.
“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one can’t read.” ― Mark Twain
Language is fluid, ever changing. It’s something that we can always continue to learn, and always continue to improve.
2. You understand what you’re doing wrong.
At some point in our writing pathways, we’re going to do something wrong. Now it may not be something huge and embarrassing, but it may be misusing quotes, or it may be quoting something under copyright without the correct permission. Now one of those is much more serious than the other, but both are mistakes. Mistakes that, if you read about those issues, you could have avoided.
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
“Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” ― William Faulkner
Ignorance is not bliss in writing. If you make amateur mistakes, you’ll be labeled an amateur. If you pretend that you know it all and refuse to learn what you’re doing wrong, you won’t grow out of that amateur status.
As writers, we are responsible for learning our craft and performing it well. If you expect to be paid for a product, you ought to be able to be proud of what product you have created. Books are a product. An art product, certainly, but a product nonetheless. And one that we ought to take pride in by writing well.
3. You learn how others write.
As Faulkner said above, “study the masters.” Other writers are the masters–both in their fiction and non-fiction. One of the most popular books on writing out there is Stephen King’s book, aptly titled: “On Writing.”
Do you consider King a master? What better way to absorb his expertise than by reading both his stories as well as his advice about writing? Not all of us have the chance to sit down with him and ask him our writing questions. Instead, we must read his writing. And what luck that he has written about writing as well.
If you admire a person’s writing, then take the opportunity to study it–both fiction and non-fiction.
Nearly every single time I read a writing book, I learn how to try something in a new way, or learn to think about the issue differently.
I have never yet read a book on writing from which I have not learned something of value.
4. You aren’t a good enough writer–yet.
Isn’t this our ultimate goal as writers? We should strive to be the best we can be at writing. We shouldn’t be content with ourselves as we are at our current writing ability, but we should be trying to make our writing better. (Note that “better” is an objective term. This is mostly about what YOU consider to be better.)
Don’t give up on the writing path. There’s always an opportunity and a method to improve. Keep looking.
Both reading stories and reading about writing is incredibly valuable.
Some things we must learn by example, such as reading an excellently told story and dissecting it.
Others we must learn through a teacher, pointing out areas where we can improve.
Sometimes, when we don’t have a physical teacher, we can learn through a book. It is one the special properties of books, the ability to pass on knowledge from someone whom we might never have met or spoken with. But through words, we can learn a great deal. And what a shame to those who do not find value in learning from books.
Shortlist of my favorite books about writing
- Structuring Your Novel by K.M. Weiland
- Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland
- Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
- The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
- Revision and Self Editing for Publication by James Scott Bell
- Revision & Editing by James Scott Bell
- Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld
- Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle
- Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress
- Dialogue by Gloria Kempton
Guest post contributed by Kelsie Engen. Kelsie loves to read and started her blog to share that passion with others of like mind.