Stop by most any bookstore and you’ll find shelf after shelf of books dedicated to the craft of writing.
There are books about writing memoir, developing memorable characters, creating suspense, and refining your writing practice. There are grammar books, agent and publisher directories, and books filled with story prompts for “reluctant writers,” “modern women,” and “bored writers.”
There are even books about writing about writing.
I’m sure many of these tomes are terrific. But, the fact is, you don’t need most of them.
The best way to become a better writer is to read. I know, every teacher you ever had and every author you ever met probably told you the same thing. That’s because it’s true. To write, you must read. Don’t restrict yourself to the genre in which you’re writing.
The more widely you read, the more you’ll learn. For example, I’ve taken participated in workshops and read books about “Setting the Scene,” but reading Marissa Meyer’s Cinder was like a master class on the topic. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, but Meyer’s young adult book, set in futuristic China, had me seeing and believing – with multiple senses – from the opening scene:
Cinder was the only full-service mechanic at New Beijing’s weekly market. Without a sign, her booth hinted at her trade only by the shelves of stock android parts that crowded the walls. It was squeezed into a shady cove between a used netscreen dealer and a silk merchant, both of whom frequently complained about the tangy smell of metal and grease that came from Cinder’s booth, even though it was usually disguised by the aroma of honey buns from the bakery across the square.
Meyer expertly uses sensory details to quickly give the reader an idea of who Cinder is and where the story takes place.
Similarly, you can read books and articles about the importance of choosing the right Point of View for your story. Or, you can read and learn from stories that obviously wouldn’t be as powerful if the author had chosen a different POV. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is a prime example. The book’s first-person perspective makes protagonist Starr’s pain more raw and relatable. The moments immediately after her friend Khalil is shot and killed by a police officer take on a horrifying intimacy as seen through Starr’s eyes:
An ear-splitting scream emerges from my gut, explodes in my throat, and uses every inch of me to be heard.
Instinct says don’t move, but everything else says check on Khalil. I jump out the Impala and rush around to the other side. Khalil stares at the sky as if he hopes to see God. His mouth is open like he wants to scream. I scream loud enough for the both of us.
“No, no, no,” is all I can say, like I’m a year old and it’s the only word I know. I’m not sure how I end up on the ground next to him. My mom once said that if someone gets shot, try to stop the bleeding, but there’s so much blood. Too much blood.
“No, no, no.”
Khalil doesn’t move. He doesn’t utter a word. He doesn’t even look at me. His body stiffens, and he’s gone. I hope he sees God.
The more you read, the more you’ll be able to unearth these sorts of writing lessons. Read with a writer’s eye. Ask yourself why you’re drawn to particular characters and how an author was able to keep you guessing until the very end of a book. Draw inspiration from descriptions of sensational scenery or especially villainous villains.
It’s OK to buy yourself a handful of “How To” writing books (check my suggestions at the end of this post*), but save the majority of your book-buying cash for good literature and learn from it. Not all readers are good writers, but most every good writer I know reads.
* If you’re ready to invest in a few good writing books, here are three of my favorites:
1) The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. – I bought this book for a college class and continue to use it 30 years later. Sentence structure, over-used words, unnecessary words, and active voice are among important reminders here.
2) Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – I’ve lost track of how many copies of this book I’ve gifted to friends. This collection of essays is equal parts inspiration and instruction. It speaks to me. I hope it speaks to you.
3) On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser – This classic reiterates fundamentals and preaches about eliminating clutter from writing. First issued in 1976, this book has been updated and continues to be a best seller – for good reason.