To get better at writing, a writer needs to read, and read a lot.
But not just anything.
And not just in any way.
There’s a way to read that lets the act itself become formative work for the writer rather than a passive somnolence or thoughtless automation.
Reading can be good work and add value to your writing if you read like this:
1. Read at a conversational pace. That page-turner that everyone’s burning through won’t help you. You may as well be watching a movie for all the benefit it has on your brain’s language center. When you read fast, your brain tends to glean meaning at the surface. Page turners tend to be surfacy and encourage a break-neck pace, and that’s fine in so far as you crave it. But reading text at the same pace you would read it aloud to someone else does something more. It allows you to hear sentence structure, variety, and sequence. It allows you to appreciate — in a writing-as-craft kind of way — what the author is doing at the sentence level.
2. Read good stuff at a conversational pace. Immerse yourself in the kind of writing you want to emulate. Stretch. And by stretch I also mean don’t break. Choose those writers that are on your frontier but not over the horizon. The text should be reachable, so it’s important to know your own abilities.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t read books that are over your head. Making your brain hurt by thinking is good for you. But when reading to specifically improve writing, keep things in front of you, in arms’ reach. Watching a world-class athlete perform is great fun. Trying to keep up with him in the gym can be fatal.
3. Read good stuff that echoes your own sensibilities at a conversational pace. You know this intuitively when you “click” with a particular writer. Your own skills and abilities get warmed up when they’re being demonstrated in what you’re reading. When rhythm between narration and dialogue, for example, fits your own senses, you can better imitate that skill and better use that writing muscle. And here’s a bonus — your other writing muscles will be in better posture for working out. Choosing books that fit well is like strengthening your core.
4. Don’t limit yourself to points 1-3. I read some books at a frenetic pace. And I have to read some books so slowly I get a headache. There should be a regular place in our reading lives for both kinds. But when I find myself saying If only I could write like this, when I’ve got a good book by an author whose craft makes sense to me, I make sure to read at a pace that lets me see how to write like this. For writers, this kind of reading should occupy most of our nose-in-book time.
So slow it down, Writer. Work those muscles.