Learning to Write by Reading
You might think avoiding other influences makes you a more original writer. But nobody can write in a vacuum. Even the meanings of words depend on how others have used them. You didn’t invent the English language. Everything you write, you learned from someone else, even if only from your first grade teacher. Only when you’re aware of your influences as a writer can you transcend them, instead of unconsciously copying them.
Instead, reading other writers (which you already do) and learning from their style will help you develop your own, original style. Besides improving your vocabulary, it will give you a wider array of tools from which you can choose. You may recognize your own style as you read someone else’s. Or you may learn what you don’t want to sound like.
Choosing your influences
Which writers should an aspiring writer read? You should read the great ones – there, that’s vague enough. Start with the classics of world literature, because many people over many years have confirmed they’re worth reading. You can search Google for “greatest writers of all time” to see a list. Include modern authors as well, because that’s what you are. My colleague Mark Nichol suggests four books that demonstrate specific writing skills.
But be warned: take advice on what writers to read, but not whom you must imitate. You can never be anyone but yourself. In 18th century England, everyone thought they needed to write like Lord Chesterfield, but that was a bad idea even in the 18th century. Imitate the writers you want to be like – it’s more profound than it sounds. As I’ve said before, you are what you read. Reading influences your style, and as you discover your true style, you have an obligation to keep developing it.
Even great writers might be imitated for the wrong reasons. Perhaps another writer’s uniqueness shouldn’t be imitated, since you have your own. Perhaps he or she can get away with breaking rules that you and I shouldn’t try to, not until we become more skilled. Until we do, no wonder our writing doesn’t quite work.
Or it might be a writer’s persona that draws us, rather than their skill. Many aspiring writers long to be irreverent free-spirits, but that doesn’t make them good writers. Mixing a drink like Ernest Hemingway will not make you write like him. (Hemingway himself retorted, “Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes.”) Some great literary figures were great partly because of their suffering, and you may not want that. Some of them were mentally ill.
Imitate writers because of how they write, not because of what they write about. Some writers became popular only because they landed on the popular side of popular controversies. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote about his fictitious novelist Kilgore Trout, “His prose was frightful. Only his ideas were good.” Other writers camouflage their bad ideas with excellent writing, but it’s dangerous to imitate interesting writers who write badly.
Developing your tools
Choose the writers who can do what you want to do, so you can learn how to do it yourself. Like many people, my favorite writer Connie Willis could never guess the murderer in Agatha Christie novels. She wanted to learn how to surprise her readers too, so she studied Agatha Christie’s plots to figure out how she did it, and it paid off. Now critics call her “a novelist who can plot like Agatha Christie.”
If you’re writing within a genre, you need to learn the genre, but it’s more important to learn the skills. In other words, don’t say, “Okay, I like J.R.R. Tolkien, so I want to learn to write about orcs.” Orcs have been done enough already. If you really want to give orcs a fresh face (and orcs are not known for their facial beauty), you first need to learn to write about evil, or danger, or enemies. So find authors who understand those things, whatever their genre. If you are organizing a dangerous quest, you don’t need to imitate the way Gandalf organized one in Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit hole. You could find inspiration for that in Moby Dick or Treasure Island. Professor Tolkien would be ashamed if all you learned from his writings was how to talk like an orc.
You can imitate the style of others as you develop your own, but there’s no need to imitate their ideas. If you’re writing about danger, sure, read how other writers depict danger. Read what they say, then decide what you want to say. It should not be the same thing. That is not the kind of imitation I’m talking about. How you feel about danger will be different because you’re different. That’s your unique contribution.
How to absorb a writer’s influence
Besides reading, what other ways can you learn from an author?
- Copy out passages that you like. Copying focuses your attention by slowing down your reading. You can learn better by involving the hand as well as the eye.
- Read out loud. While you’re at it, why not read regularly to those who can’t read for themselves? That helps you, the aspiring writer, as well as the preschool future reader, or the elderly person with failing sight.
Create templates from favorite sentences, similar to the Mad Libs game, and fill the structure with your own words. For example, based on the first line of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome:
NAME VERB the NOUN, bit by bit, from ADJECTIVE NOUN, and each time it was a ADJECTIVE NOUN.
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and each time it was a different story.
- Parody an author’s style while writing on a subject that he never would have. That’s how the “Bad Hemingway Contest” kept going for nearly 30 years. Parodying Ernest Hemingway is an attractive target that has tempted distinguished writers such as E. B. White, Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Plimpton.
Imitation doesn’t need to be a form of flattery. You can learn a lot about a writer’s style when you make gentle fun of him or her. W. H. Auden, in his 1962 essay “The Poet and the City,” says that in his imaginary College for Bards, “the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.”
Authors who learned writing by copying out passages, even entire books, include Jack London, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Hunter S. Thompson.