Sometimes the most obvious advice is right in front of us. In fact, people might be screaming it at the tops of their lungs. But for some reason, we are deaf to these pleas. That is, until it’s laid out for us in the clearest, simplest possible terms. For that we’ll turn to Stephen King, a man who might know a thing or two about writing.
“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
That comes from King’s writing memoir, On Writing. Many current writers and bloggers have read this to me, among many others containing writing advice. Eventually, though, writers have to ditch these how-to manuals and start reading with purpose. It’s time to expand your reading.
That’s the one surefire way to improve your writing, no matter the style: by reading wider. It takes a little planning and a ton of motivation, but it pays off in the end. It will imbue you with a sense of style and authority, two qualities necessary for any writer’s success.
Here’s how to start your reading regiment.
Remember King’s words here, too: “If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly.”
Read what you will write
It might seem like obvious advice, but so many people fail to follow it. If you’re not reading material similar to what you’re writing, you’re asking for trouble. Writers need to read for a number of reasons, but chief among them is gaining familiarity with a certain style. Even after writers have absorbed the basics, reading still helps keep us attuned to these stylings.
Yet some bloggers claim, sometimes with an air of smugness, that they don’t read blogs. The joke is on them, of course, because eventually they will grow out of touch with blog readers, since they are not one of them. It’s only a pet theory, since I have no evidence, but I’m willing to bet that the No. 1 reason blogs fail is because their authors do not read enough blogs to keep up.
The principle applies for copywriters as well. If you’re writing marketing copy, it’s essential that you read the work of others. If you create landing pages, make sure to find as many landing pages as possible and read them — multiple times, even. The more familiar we become with the writing that we wish to produce, the better writers we ourselves will become.
Read what you want to write
For some writers, the present is just fine. Perhaps some web copywriters are content with their positions and their salary, and wish to do things with their free time other than write. Perhaps some bloggers enjoy it as a hobby, but do not wish to pursue it further. While that might represent a good number of internet writers, it does not represent all of them. Many of us want more.
This means expanding into other styles. Shaukat Ameen covered one such conversion in a post titled The Reason Why Established Blogger Should Sell Information Products Online. While he covered one aspect, the conversion from blogger to salesperson, I’d like to cover another. Writing for pure blogging and writing copy are two completely different disciplines. Both have different tenets, and so those who write in one style must expand their reading so that they can become familiar with the other.
If you want to write informational ebooks, read more informational ebooks. If you want to write novels, read novels. Again, it seems obvious, but it’s so often overlooked. Reading ingrains us with senses of rhythm, structure, and style. With these three elements combined we can expand our writing to other realms. But without them, we’re stuck in one place.
Read outside your comfort zone
Even those who don’t aspire to write magazine features should still read them. Pure nonfiction writers should read novels. Bloggers should read more than just other blogs. If we merely stick with material in our comfort zones, we will not grow beyond them. It’s not until we expand our reading habits that we will see great improvements in our writing.
Consider the first two aspects of reading wider a primer. Reading what you write and reading what you want to write are two basic bits of advice that are essential to any writer. Without them, success is impossible. While success is possible while staying within a comfort zone, growth is not. An improving writer is a growing writer, and in order to grow and improve we must shatter our current boundaries and move into uncharted territory.
Magazine features teach us longer form structure. Nonfiction books teach us how to bring together many disparate ideas under a single theme. Novels, better than any other medium, teach complex storytelling. Blog posts can teach us how to focus on a single idea and expand on it. That is to say, all different forms of writing contain different educational elements. Any writer will do well to read across many different styles and genres, even if she doesn’t plan to write in them herself. The lessons contained in them can be of use to any writer.
We can also get out of our comfort zone by reading about subjects that don’t necessarily interest us. Business bloggers can learn a lot from philosophy and spirituality bloggers. The ideas that personal development bloggers espouse can be of use to technology bloggers. Copywriters can form connections with all sorts of people by reading blogs and magazines on topics they hadn’t previously considered interesting. All of it will serve to help us grow as writers.
Want the ultimate in getting out of your comfort zone? Find a conference or convention — any conference or convention. It can be one dedicated to writing, but it doesn’t have to be. You can find cheap flights and cheap hotels to help keep costs down, and many conventions allow bloggers free access as media members. Go there and see what the attendees read. Attending a convention has the added bonus of personal connections, but that’s a topic for another post.
Writing success is impossible without a backbone of reading. Reading teaches us about structure, style, and content. Without these three elements, any writer is lost. In order to learn the first, we need to read what we plan to write.
In order to learn the second, we need to read not only what we plan to write, but also what we want to write. In order to expand on the third, we must read across formats and genres. No one should need prodding in this regard; reading is fun, above everything else. That we can learn something while we’re being entertained is merely an added bonus.