Learning to write without reading is like learning to swim without water. It’s technically possible, but it removes the ever-important context of the environment you plan to dive into. Having a comfort with words and their use makes learning to write much easier. That comfort helps keep you afloat when you wander into new areas of writing.
Much like someone who has never been in water, though, you may not be convinced how much you can learn from this new environment. So, here’s a more specific breakdown of some of the writing skills you can learn from reading.
1. Telling actual storiesIt’s surprising how many writers don’t know what goes into an actual story. For instance, many writers try to start a story based on an obscure idea rather than a problem. Those stories usually end up being a meaningless string of events instead of a story.
Whether you write novels or articles, storytelling is a part of your writing. By reading pieces of writing that you wish you’d written, you’ll learn how to tell those types of stories. You should be able to identify the problem, the meaning, and the writer’s method of conveying that information.
2. Creating believable charactersWe’ve all seen or read about characters that we absolutely hate. Ironically, these are some of the best characters, because they’re written well enough for us to have strong emotions toward them. The worst characters are the ones that we can’t feel anything toward because they don’t act like real people.
Though interacting with people is the best way to learn how to write about people, reading is the best way to learn how to turn people into characters. In both fiction and nonfiction, characters help tell the story in a way that engages the audience. By reading great characters, you can learn what elements go into how they are described, how they speak, and how they progress the story.
3. Removing boring partsA good portion of the writing process involves erasing what you write. Storytelling is conveying information, but also choosing not to convey unimportant information. When you write, you will likely include information that is important to you, but not your audience. Reading will help you identify that boring information and get rid of it.
When you read, pay attention to what is said and what isn’t said. Recognize when you are bored and when you are excited. What information made you feel that way? What information were you able to figure out on your own? Eventually, you’ll find that lazy writers give you information that you don’t need to know and great writers allow you to fill in the blanks.
4. Using strong voicesWriting with a strong voice is an advanced skill that can be difficult to grasp. First you have to decide what that voice is, then you have to determine how that voice communicates, and lastly you have to figure out how to use that voice throughout an entire piece of writing. Many writers’ voices can be subtle, but if you pay attention to what you read, you can begin to understand them.
In fiction, voice is mostly about the perspective a story is told from. In nonfiction, voice helps the writer connect with their audience. When you read, you should note the writer’s word choices, sentence length, grammar tightness, and other writing nuances. How do those choices affect the information being conveyed? How do they make you feel as the reader?
5. Attracting wandering eyesIf you’re a writer, it probably means you’re hoping someone will read your work at some point. Well, you have to earn that. Today, there’s more stuff out there to read than ever before. You’re competing with immersive novels, captivating articles, and hilarious Facebook posts—an endless supply of amazing content. How do you get people away from it all long enough to pay attention to your writing?
People pay attention to things that they connect with on some level. Reading will teach you how to form that connection. What makes you pick up a book or click on a link to an article? What makes you keep reading when you reach the end of a paragraph? How in the world did the writer keep your attention long enough to get you to finish reading their entire piece of work?
It’s your job as a writer to be able to answer these questions, because they challenge your writing skills. The best way to get answers is to actively read. Don’t just put some words in front of your eyes; pay attention to what they’re saying and how they’re saying them. If you do that often enough, those words will teach you everything you need to know in order to be a great writer.