3 simple steps to becoming a better writer: Read, write, and talk about reading and writing

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I’ve always thought that to be a good writer, you have to be an avid reader. Reading exposes you to different writing styles and helps you figure out which style(s) you identify with most. It can also give you ideas for stories, characters or scenes.

I’ve always loved to read and write, and have often thought the two went hand-in-hand. I was the girl who was known for reading a book while walking nearly two miles to and from school every day. I spent weekends at the library. And I preferred reading and writing to sleeping. After saying goodnight to my parents, I’d turn on my secret flashlight and start reading or writing stories.

Not all writers enjoy reading, though. And not all book lovers enjoy writing.

At a recent book signing, author William Giraldi said he likes reading but doesn’t like to write. Giraldi, a Boston University professor, said his students are the opposite; they love to write but don’t seem as interested in reading. He said there’s an analogy there that he hasn’t been able to complete yet: “Wanting to write without wanting to read is like wanting to ____ without wanting to ____.”

The New Yorker’s Macy Halford, who was at the signing, explained:

[Giraldi would] come up with a couple, unsatisfying answers, one involving race cars, one involving sex (he wouldn’t tell us what they were). But he threw it out to the audience to ponder, and now I’m throwing it out to you. What is wanting to write without wanting to read like? It’s imperative that we figure it out, because Giraldi’s right: it’s both crazy and prevalent among budding writers. I’d also welcome theories on why it’s prevalent—is writing a more natural activity than reading? Does watching stories unfold on TV or in film give kids the same creative urge that reading does? Is it just that it’s easier to see your ego in words you wrote yourself?

Sure, it’s easier to see your ego in your own writing, but I wouldn’t say that’s why most people write. We write because we get something out of it — a release, a feeling of accomplishment, a connection with readers, a deeper understanding of an emotional experience. I prefer writing to reading, but I try to read as much as I can. I used to try to read a variety of books, but now I just read what I like, which is mostly memoirs. I’ll “sample” other books (aka browse through them and look for interesting passages or good writing) but I don’t see the need to read something that doesn’t interest me just for the sake of exposing myself to a different genre.Just as reading can help you become a better writer, so can talking about it.

My colleague Roy Peter Clark has often said that to be a better writer, you have to read, write, and talk about reading and writing. I started tutoring a 6th-grade boy in writing a few months ago, and this is one of the main points I try to get across. Each week, I talk with him about the book we’re reading and ask him questions about his writing assignment. In hearing his responses, I can identify the challenges he faces when writing and help him think more about the choices he makes as a writer.

Reading, writing, and talking about reading and writing all factor into becoming a better writer. And based on my experiences at work, I’d say that editing also helps!