We’ve suggested ways to spice up your writing. We’ve warned you against ways to ruin it. But if that all sounds like a lot of hard work, there’s a much easier way to improve your wordsmithery – and you can even put your feet up while you do it.
Stephen King thinks all writers need to put 50% of their time aside for reading. (My own version of this is the bucket theory: you need to fill up with words before you can pour them out again). All professional writers have, at some point of their careers, espoused the value of cultivating a healthy appetite for reading – some of them indirectly:
A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.
Tyrion Lannister, Game Of Thrones.
Now convinced you need to spend more time with your feet up? Try out these 7 styles of reading - because they will improve the way you string a sentence.
1. Read #longform
“Quality journalism is dead”, cry the media doom-mongers. Evidently they’re not following the #longform hashtag on Twitter, or calling by longform.org or Longreads, or the New Yorker or Rolling Stone or The Atlantic or any of the many places online that you can still find top-quality lengthy journalism being published every single day. These are where the experts hang out – people who know how to keep our interest for thousands of words more than we’re told we’re capable of reading online. Their work is smart and brilliantly crafted, it’s so much fun that it barely feels like “learning” when we’re reading it – and we don’t have to pay a penny. Yes, bloggers rarely write posts as long as longform – but when you read a 5,000-word piece that’s as tight and lean as anything you’ve ever read, you know there’s something to be learned here.
So go learn it.
Personal note: I find reading at length on a computer screen really tricky – especially in a browser, with all its distracting buttons. My attention skids around like the inside of my head has been greased. Solution: if I find any longform reading, I take it “offline” – either using Chrome’s Send To Kindle to strip out the article text, bundle it into a file and sent it to my Kindle….or by using EverRead to do the same for Evernote on my Android phone. Either way, I’m moving the article to a device that feels much more like I’m reading a book – and my brain allows me to concentrate on that article. Job done.
(Want a good, solid grounding in the best longform journalism? This should keep you busy).
2. Read To Challenge Yourself
Some writing is difficult to read because it’s just plain Bad. (Everyone who is innocent take one step forward not so fast, Dan Brown). Some writing is difficult because it’s not really meant to be read – most legal documentation, for example, designed to capture everything except a sense of joie de vivre. But some writing is a struggle because it’s trying to challenge us. It’s pushing our thoughts in new directions, or making unusual demands on them – asking great feats of memory, forcing us to follow the thread of unusually complex sentences, making us grapple with a deliberately obtuse, unreliable narrator. Good humour writing is often difficult writing. Every time we laugh, we’ve been outwitted into an expression of surprise. We weren’t expecting the punchline, and that’s why it’s funny.
Reading that challenges you is reading that changes you. Usually for the better.
Personal note: I enjoy reading Dan Brown. I enjoy it because I hate hate hate the way he writes. Consequently, I’ve learned a lot about the way I never, ever want to write by reading Dan Brown. Valuable lesson, see?
3. Read Travel Literature
In recent decades, many of the postwar “greats” of English- language travel narratives have shuffled off to Buffalo, gone for a Burton: Wilfred Thesiger, Norman Lewis, Chatwin, Eric Newby, Patrick Leigh Fermor and that fearless Australian adventurer and writer, Peter Pinney. Meanwhile, other fine authors such as William Dalrymple, Thubron, Morris and Bryson keep the flame. They are joined by younger writers such as Pico Iyer and Tony Horwitz who work in multiple genres, including journalism and cultural commentary.
It’s easy to spend your reading time buried in your RSS feeds, and if you’re following all the best travel bloggers, hey, that’s not a bad way to spend your time.
But you probably started travel blogging because you were inspired by travel writers in print – maybe one of those names listed up there. And maybe you really want your writing to sound like theirs, even though some of them would never be seen dead in a blog of their own. Do you want to sound like them, even a little bit? Then you need to put some time aside to read all their stuff. You need to regard reading your favourite writers as part of your work.
Yep, life’s a real bitch.
4. Learn how stories work
Travel blogging is about telling stories. It doesn’t matter if your primary aim is to entertain or to inform your readers – either way, storytelling skills are required because your readers are human beings. Humans are animals that have an emotional response to stories. The oral tradition that predates the written form in the development of many world languages…is founded on stories, because stories stick in the mind. We are neurologically attuned to good stories.
And so being able to tell a story well is one of the most powerful skills available to a writer – any kind of writer.
By spending time learning how to tell a story, you are learning to communicate better. That’s a transferable skill, whatever you intend to do with your writing. You can communicate more effectively if you know exactly how a story grabs its readers and doesn’t let go – and by using storytelling elements as you write, you can grab those people in exactly that way.
You become better at writing in a way that human beings enjoy.
You become a better writer.
5. Read Unusually
As important as it is to read within your chosen field, it’s equally useful to read outside it.
(Does that sound like conflicting advice? It isn’t. Do both).
Go out of your way to read widely. Read comics, flyers, the backs of cereal packets, dip into magazines you wouldn’t normally even glance at – read the first page of writing you know you’ll loathe. When you’re next online, click yourself somewhere new to you, and read whatever results. Fiction, non-fiction, advertorial, rambling opinion – it’s all brain-food. (Let’s call it head-tapas).
If you read something good, you learn something. If you read something wretched and awful – you learn something. The common denominator: everything is worth reading for the initial novelty of reading it.
There is only one exception to this rule. He’s called Perez Hilton. Kthx.
6. Read Critically
If we read something and the writer has done his or her job, we lose ourselves in it – bypassing the words in favour of the meaning behind them. But if you’re wanting to learn how they’re writing, you need to read it differently. What’s the pacing of the sentences and paragraphs? What kind of language are they using? Is it florid, punchy, aggressive, meandering? If so – why? Why is the author using this as a strategy for holding our attention? Is our attention really held here?
Get out your red pen. With this kind of reading, you’re going to need it.
7. Read Yourself
The last type of reading you can do is by far the hardest. Steel yourself – this will be painful.
There’s little that’s as instructive as revisiting your earliest attempts at writing – and little as gut-wrenchingly agonising. Your earliest writing will be awful. No, not awful – insufferable. You’ll hate it. It will offend and horrify you. Those people out there right now writing blog posts that make you want to claw your eyes out?
You were worse.
But it’s healthy to feel this way. No, really. You’re not just fitting yourself with an intellectual equivalent of a hair shirt – you’re keeping yourself honest, by appreciating how far you’ve come (and how much you needed to learn back then, even if you weren’t aware of it at the time). You’re faced with proof of a simple, powerful fact: you weren’t born a writer, you became one – and if that’s true, then you can become an even better writer by sticking at it. Yes, this is pain – but it’s the good kind of pain.
So knock back another glass bottle of wine hard liquor, and keep reading. You’ll thank yourself when it’s over. (If you get that far without passing out, of course).
Longform, difficult, traditional, nuts’n'bolts, off-the-wall, critical and self-reading. So, what have I missed?