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.


  1. Respectfully, I completely disagree. An intelligent and discerning person (which I'd hope all prospective writers are) can learn more by reading a dozen well-written books than a thousand manuals. If they turn their attention towards the how, it doesn't matter what book they're reading; they'll be initiated into the mysteries.
    I'm not saying "don't read writing manuals," I'm saying that the proper place for those books is second place in anyone's reading. Without a good background of understanding that comes from deep reading, lessons on writing have less place to catch.
    And incidentally, if one reads primarily within just one precious genre, their writing isn't going to be as good as if they had read widely. The best writers in any genre usually transcend that genre, and write outside out of it as well.

  2. Thanks, heavy hedonist, you bring up a good point that is also the Catch 22 of this situation. Which do you read first? The fiction examples or the non-fiction instruction?

    This reminds me of what would happen when I was a small child. I would ask someone how to spell something and they would respond, "go look it up in the dictionary." I didn't know how to spell it, how could they possibly expect me to find it among the umpteen gazillion words in that massive tome?

    A similar condition exists among reading the best examples of fiction to improve your writing. If I never knew what a subject or verb was, reading a thousand sentences would never teach me how to obtain proper subject-verb agreement. On the flip side, only learning about subjects and verbs does little good without some excellent examples of how they are used properly.

    So, which to read first?

    I agree with you, read the fiction examples first. Second, read the non-fiction instruction. But don’t stop there. You must still include the important feedback loop. Go back to read the fiction again, this time with a better understanding of why they are good examples of fiction.

  3. Thanks for this. I would add to your reading list On Writing by Stephen King. I've picked up quite a lot from that book.

  4. Thanks for the article. It was interesting. I do agree with your reply to the comment above. I grew up around my now wife and she always had a book in her hand. How she kept from running into things I don't know. Anyway, now she is a great author in my opinion. - Donald Swan