Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Targeted Reading for Writers

Conventional wisdom tells us "to become a better writer you must read." Good advice, but meaningless all by itself. How do you know if you are learning anything instead of wasting your time reading when you should be writing? Perhaps the most important question is, why are you reading?

Let's answer the why question first, since this is the most important.

Question: Why?

Answer: You are reading to improve your craft.

The craft of writing is "how well you write." Your writing must convey meaning to the reader. Preferably your meaning. Fortunately for us, the craft of writing can be taught. Something we can learn by reading.

Let's move on to what.

Question: What should you read to improve your craft?

Answer: Books which teach the craft of writing.

Let's modify the conventional wisdom saying into "learn to write better by learning to read better." How do I learn to read better, you ask? To help you with this answer, I have created my own list of Targeted Reading for Writers below.

If you only have time to read one book to improve your writing, then that book is:

-- The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White

Shame on you! If you only have time to read one book to improve your writing, you are in the wrong profession. Hence, these next three books should be added to the first book. These four books should be every writer's essential core reading requirements to learn the craft of writing:

-- Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

-- The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler

-- Writing the Breakout Novel and Companion Workbook by Donald Maass

The following eight books expand your knowledge, but mostly reinforce what you learn in the four core books:

-- The Art of Dramatic Writing by Egri Lajos

-- The Secrets Of Action Screenwriting by William C. Martell

-- Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

-- Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Myth Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films by Stuart Voytilla

-- The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

-- Manga Madness by David Okum (pay close attention to the character archetypes section)

-- The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers by Donald Maass

-- Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read by Michael Hauge

One more book should be mentioned here. And it is:

-- Your favorite fiction book in the genre you want to write.

After you have learned the craft of writing, you are prepared to read better to improve your own writing. How do you read better? With a highlighter and pencil in hand. What are you highlighting and annotating? You are deconstructing your favorite book to see how the concepts from the other writing books on this list were implemented in a published book.

Read a book not for the content of the story but for the craft of the writing to create the feedback loop essential to the learning process. Without the feedback loop, you are reading to read and will not gain further insight into why the words on the page are so effective at conveying their meaning to the reader.

The often dispensed advice, "If you want to be a good writer, read a lot" is commonplace but not extremely helpful if that is all you are told. First you must know the why and the what before you can incorporate the ever important feedback loop which helps you learn from your reading.