How to Learn to Write

Reading as a Writer

Last night Terry Price and I hosted a dinner for the new students entering the Loft, and, big surprise, the conversation was all about writing.

One of the things that Terry talked about was how, in the past, some of his students would complain that they didn’t have time to read, that trying to write took such a big chunk of their time that there was no time left for reading.

This is a shame.

Actually, it is more than a shame.  It is a crime.  Because, honestly?  If you are a writer, you should be reading.  There’s just no two ways about it.  Reading the kinds of books that you want to write immerses you in the tropes and techniques and traditions of that genre, whether that genre is the novel, or the short story, or creative non-fiction.  The only way to figure out where you want to go is to look at where others have gone before you.

MFA programs, particularly brief-residency MFA programs, are based on this very idea, and emphasize the value of writers reading to learn how to write.  We emphasize the same thing in the Loft.

Words In, Words Out

I have this theory that, when I’m writing a lot, I need to replenish those words.  Just as when you exercise a lot, you need to drink a lot of water to replenish what you’ve lost through sweat, so too, with writing, you must restock your words.

Some writers will tell you that if they don’t like to read whatever it is they are writing for fear that reading will somehow influence them.  Um, of course its going to influence you, because that is why we read.

Because you know better than to plagiarize, you are not going to copy an author word for word.  You’re just going to absorb the way that author writes, note how he uses dialogue, study how she writes description.  In this way you learn techniques you can apply to your own writing.

No Time to Read?

You make time to watch TV, don’t you?  You make time to surf the internet.  When you stop to think about it, you can probably think of several time-suckers that you can rid your life of.  Throw your TV out the window.  Will you really miss it?  You’ll have more time to write that way, too.


I started thinking about this post last night, when we were all at dinner, talking about writing and reading.  And thought more about it this morning, because I’m going to have a phone meeting with my new student, Jillyn, who is wonderful not the least of which because she is from Portland.  And then I read Basic Ways to Improve Your Writing (its the April 21st entry, scroll down a little to find it) on the blog of the Mad Hermit and that was the final piece.  (By the way, the Mad Hermit is doing some really interesting things in terms of marrying the technology of the internet with literature–video reviews and video readings of poetry and classics.  Really cool.)

So go read.  And write some, too.

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