Reading and Writing, No ’Rithmetic

There are countless creative writing classes out there being taught nights and weekends at local high schools and community colleges. There are businesses and magazines solely devoted to teaching the craft of writing. You can earn undergraduate and graduate level degrees in the field of literature. You can even take classes online.  There are blogs and web sites with a focus on providing tips and advice to would be writers. There are facebook pages and twitter posts that will steer you to even more information. There are mountains of how-to books that will instruct you in editing, grammar, plot development, publishing, writing and the marketing of your work.

I contend that while all of those avenues are valid ways to become more informed, to receive feedback and to help improve and hone the craft of writing, there are two things that will go a long way to improving your skills: reading and writing. (I promise there will be no math here, today…)

To me, some of the best how-to books are novels—published books that you loved reading or ones that have garnered great critical acclaim.  Hell, even a bad book can be a valuable example of what not to do. As you read a book take some time to figure out what it is that has you devoting so much of your precious free time to it. Is it the language? If so how is the author using the words? What kinds of descriptions stay with you? Is it the humor?  If so, what makes it funny? Have you had similar experiences that would make your audience laugh?  Is it the story? What kind of plot construction does the author use? How does he or she bring the characters alive? What makes characters endearing? What makes characters despicable?

I’m not suggesting that you copy the exact style of a favorite author—you need to develop your own voice. But I would urge you to figure out what makes one author more successful than another. How does the art of one author draw you in? How did he or she connect with you?

The other side of the coin is practicing your craft.  Singers and musicians practice endlessly, artists sketch and create preliminary studies for bigger works, actors and dancers relentlessly rehearse. Writing is no different than any other talent.  It takes effort and experimentation. Some experiments are good, others are bad but one can’t expect to achieve success without a little failure. Write a lot and write often— ideally every day. Flash fiction, short stories, poetry, blog posts and dare I suggest that even tweets allow us to stretch those writing muscles.

You have a whole library of how-to books on writing and you didn’t even realize it. Go raid those stacks of paperbacks in the hall closet or boxed up in the basement. Pull an old favorite off the shelf and re-read it with a different purpose; to enjoy it, yes, but with an eye towards how it is written and not just what is written.  Then sit down with pen and paper and use what you have learned. Better yet pick up a book or find a story that you think didn’t work well and improve upon it. Practice makes perfect, it’s as simple as one, two, three. Doh! Sorry, I promised no math…

Question: Have you ever found yourself analyzing a book or editing it on the fly while reading for pleasure?

illustration by Andy Black

7 comments on “Reading and Writing, No ’Rithmetic

  1. I’ve noticed that the longer I write, the more I notice things. If it’s a good story, I can read for leisure and not think about what’s good (or bad). If the story isn’t so good, I notice things that seem off to me when I read. It’s like something isn’t hitting the right note and I have to point out what that wrong note is.

    Agree with your assessment on the how-to of writing. Reading and writing will do it every time.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head. It is much easier to be critical when you are not enjoying yourself. So it’s a double whammy to an author who is not at the top of his craft. S/he is not engaging you AND you are noticing all the little things wrong which makes the read even less enjoyable. Lord knows I am not always at the top of my craft but getting the story right is the place to start. Editors and proof readers can help with the rest.

  2. […] Reading and Writing, No ‘Rithmetic (andyswordsandpictures.wordpress.com) […]

  3. All I can say to this is “here here!!” while at the same time feel a wee bit sheepish on the inside for not writing nearly as much as I should!
    Great post and it’s given me some motivation so here’s hoping I can stick with it! 🙂

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