Monday 28 December 2020

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #1: Reading

If you want the year ahead to be a better year writing-wise, consider changing some of your habits.

I’ll be making some suggestions over the next series of blog post. Ignore, use, abuse and plunder them. One size never fits all. They are a little brusque and that is deliberate. But I hope they are practical.

As we proceed, you will note only one of them is actually about actual writing.

But for now let’s start with the bedrock of writing: Reading.

Read More Books

Writers are readers. This is a given. You want to write words. Why should anyone read your words if you’re not prepared to read anyone else’s?

Ideas comes from books. An argument can be carefully constructed with facts and evidence, unlike on the internet where facts seem to get in the way. Writers are interested in ideas. Stories and characters are about ideas, after all. Characters incarnate ideas and perspectives.

The written word also expands our minds since it is a very flexible medium. The writer has total control over what the reader experiences, and therefore the reading experience can take you places hitherto unexplored.

Moreover, published books show how the written word should be written. You learn so much about the art of writing just by reading. So, that's why I say again: Read more books this year.

How to Read More Books

If you find it helpful to set a target, do that. Make a list. If you're the competitive type, compete against yourself. Write a list of the books you read last year, and then try to read more books this year.

Don’t just read more books. Read fewer books if you like. But try and read better books. Some trash is fine, and might be educational or inspiring. But read a few classics. A class was invariably written decades and centuries ago, and has subsequently been declared a classic. This means you will be looking through a clear, reveal window of a time when people were the same, but they thought very differently. Look through some new windows this coming year.

Read More Widely

If you read mostly fiction, read more non-fiction. I’m the other way around, and have to make myself read more fiction. I’m glad I have. And I read plenty of novels that I liked. And plenty that I didn’t like. I even gave up on a few of them, but I’m glad I started them and gave them a hundred pages before bailing.

What happens if don’t need to read books to the end?

Nothing. Nothing happens. You don't have to read books to the end.

If you’ve ever written a book, you might be more inclined to do so given you know how much work has gone into that book. But slogging on to the end of a book can just be a waste of time. Sometimes it’s worth it. I would probably have given up on A Gentleman in Moscow half way through if my wife hadn’t insisted it was worth continuing. I’m glad I did, although I maintain the book is still at least 50 pages too long, if not 80.

A few years ago, I gave up on Gilead after a hundred pages (nothing was happening and I was assured that nothing was going to happen) and I'm fine with that.

It's not just taste about pace. Sometimes books are just too long or poorly edited. Non-fiction is often guilty of being too long, especially in books about ideas (rather than biographies). Perhaps there is a need to deliver perceived value, but often the thesis is set out clearly in the first eighty pages, and thereafter there is a law of diminishing returns. I’ve been recommending The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt to everyone over the last five years, but even I would admit that 90% of the value of that book is in the first 120 pages or so.

Warning: Don’t Let Your Pile of Books Get Too High

A big pile starts to feel like homework.

Try to buy only a book or two ahead. It’s exciting to get a new book, and that’s when you want to read it most. If you’ve got a stack of nine books, you’re not going to get to this new one for a few months, and the fire of excitement may have dimmed. You might not even remember why you bought the book. Make a list of books you want to read and buy them as you go.

Beat the Amazon Algorithm

Amazon is a never-ending flowing river of books, and the algorithm is smart, but pretty soon, you’ll reading similar overlapping books if you just rely on their recommendations. Avoid this. Here's how:

Ask your friends in person or social media for book recommendations, especially asking for books that surprised them or that they encountered randomly. What was their favourite book of last year? Or ever? Ask people you don’t know very well for book recommendations, as you might get some outliers that way, and you may end up reading a book that changes your life, or opens up a whole new area for you.

Get recommendations from magazines that review books, or weekend newspapers. You don’t even need to read the review, or prejudge it based on the reviewers comments, but these book sections just bring new books to your attention. You might stumble across a new book about oak trees, quantum computing or the Raj that you suddenly want to read. This is the kind of book that would otherwise not have entered your echo chamber. Buy it and read it, remembering you don’t have to read to the end.

Browsing Books

You might want to browse a book first, or check it out. You can often read the first chapter of a book using Kindle Samples on Amazon. You get the first part of the book sent to your kindle or Kindle App for free. I use this function a lot, especially with non-fiction. Usually I’m checking the book is about what I think it’s about. I’m also making sure the writing style doesn’t grate with me for whatever reason.

Alternatively, pandemic permitting, go to an actual bookshop. Remember those? Have a good look around. But also make an arbitrary rule to pay special attention to books with, say, red or blue covers. Go to a section you never normally go to. Mix it up.

You’ll find an even more esoteric collection in second hand bookshops, charity shop or bric-a-brac stores. Pop in and see what they’ve got. It might only take five minutes to have a flick through their book section. The book might only cost 50p. What have you got to lose?

Writers read. If you want to improve your writer and have more to write about, read more and read wider.

If you have a sitcom script needs a polish before sending off to the BBC Writersroom or an agent or producer, I've produced a PDF of 7 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Script Right Now. Get it here.

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