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Words to the Wise

To Write You Must Read

Since becoming a freelance editor, I have been mystified on occasion by the quality of the writing I receive. Nowhere have some of the authors I've worked with seen writing quite like theirs. This is because no commercial publisher would accept it. My job, of course, is to guide the author toward a better manuscript; and when that is achieved it is a glorious moment, as much for me as for the author.

It has taken me years to figure out what's going on, and it's not a happy conclusion: not all writers read, and those writers who do not read struggle.

I've had clients admit to me that they don't read books. Some have admitted that they've never read a book in the genre in which they are trying to write. Their defence is time. They hardly have enough of it, they say, to work on their own book, let alone read someone else's, just to learn about writing.

And that may be the crux of the thing—to learn about writing.

Novelist Anakana Schofield, writing in the Guardian in 2013, asks, "Why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel—'everyone can become an author'—when the more important thing is how to read one?... There are no adverts that instruct you to sit down, have a cup of tea and read."

Schofield laments the excess of blogs, lists, and tips on how to write. "There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture.... Writing needs to be discussed and interrogated through reading." And significantly, in my opinion, she says, "If you wish to write well, you need to read well, or at least widely."

We learn to write well in much the same way as a child learns to talk. The child must, first, hear others talk. Then, as she grows, she listens and mimics. A good writer must, first, read others who write well. Then he must pay close attention and practise. Francine Prose has written an entire book about this, Reading Like a Writer. Here's how she describes becoming a writer, and I don't think you’ll find a better recipe for success anywhere:

"In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls 'putting every word on trial for its life': changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in."

As for those clients of mine who admit they don't read, yes, they struggle. I do what I can, but truth is, I can't give them what they really need, which is to read.

Anakana Schofield's article, "Publicising a Novel—The Problems," appeared in the Guardian in July 2013. It also appeared under the title "The Status We Imagine" in Geist, 91, Winter 2013, p. 25.

Francine Prose's book is Reading Like a Writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them, published by Harper Perennial, 2006.

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