I talk about growth a lot on my blog. In fact, if you haven’t noticed, I'm pretty passionate about it. I want to keep growing in my writing skill. I continuously challenge myself to improve. It’s my hope to encourage you to do the same.
There are numerous ways writers can grow. Obviously, first and foremost we need to be consistently writing. In fact, I recommend that beginners write the first book for themselves, enjoy the process, and let creativity have full freedom. We often don’t know what we need to learn until we start putting words on the page.
However, the act of writing in and of itself is not enough to help us grow. Eventually, we need to couple it with learning.
If we’re learning how to cook, we have to step in the kitchen and begin with basics. But if we hope to grow in skill, we need to pull out cookbooks, turn on the cooking channel, and go beyond boxed macaroni and hotdogs. We have to experiment, try new recipes, and get help from those who are further along. We’ll have trial and errors, sometimes food only worthy for the dog dish. But eventually, with the combination of practice and learning, we’ll be able to create edible, even palatable dishes.
Writers have to move beyond just the act of writing if we hope to improve our skills. We can read how-to books, go to conferences, participate in online workshops and classes, and get feedback from critique partners or contests.
But what about learning from the books we read? I’ve heard some writers argue that THE best way to learn how to write is by reading “great books.” Some writers believe we need to read voraciously and widely within and outside of our genres in order to grow.
Is reading “great books” really the best way for writers to learn the craft? Will reading voraciously really make us better writers?
I believe reading “great books” can be one way to help us grow. And I also believe reading voraciously can help us too. But . . . most writers DON’T grow from their reading experiences and here are few reasons why:
1. Great books can teach us only if we’re willing to become a student.
My kids and I recently finished The Bronze Bow by Newbery Medal author Elizabeth George Speare. As we were reading I was particularly aware of the way she developed character arcs and used symbolism.
I made a point of studying her techniques and discussing them with my children. But how many of us consciously study books when we read them? Most of the time we read for pleasure and our brains don’t stop to analyze writing techniques. If we hope to learn from the masters, we have to intentionally become a student.
2. The act of reading well doesn’t transfer into the act of writing well.
As I’ve said before, the effortlessness of reading does not easily transfer to the painstaking-process of putting words on paper. Just because someone is a voracious reader doesn’t mean they will be able to write well. Fellow blogger Julie Nilson said this in a recent comment: “The WORST manuscript I ever read was by a high school lit teacher (really!), so it's not like she hasn't read great writing.”
3. The definition of what constitutes “great books” is subjective.
I’m a part of a literature discussion group. We read plenty of "great books"—classics, myths, and award-winning authors. Among these “great books" we have a wide variety of responses. I'm always amazed when I think a book is completely worthless and someone else loves it, or vice versa.
In compiling reading programs for my children over the years, I’ve run across numerous lists (i.e. One Hundred Great Books, Books Everyone Should Read, etc.). While there might be some overlap, the lists are always different and ever-changing.
How do we decide which books are "great" and worthy to be our teachers? Is it even possible to come to a consensus? Should we even try?
4. Many of the past “great books” use out-dated writing techniques.
If I emulated the style of writing in Little Women or Treasure Island (both of which I’ve read), I would have no hope for publication in today’s market. The writing styles of a hundred, fifty, even ten years ago have changed. While I may be able to learn something about what constitutes good story-telling from the classics, that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to learn how to write commercially viable fiction from them.
My Summary: Yes, we can learn how to write better by reading other books—if we’re intentional. But reading fiction is not THE only way or even necessarily THE best way. It can comprise part of our learning process. But we need more than “great books” and voracious reading to help us become better writers.
We need a well-rounded writing apprenticeship that involves a variety of learning experiences.
Your turn! What's your opinion? What place do you give "great books" in your writing education? Do you think reading "great books" or reading voraciously is the best way to learn? Or do you give more credence to other methods of learning?