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Charlotte Rains Dixon  

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.

0 thoughts on “How to Learn to Write

  1. Jenny

    There is no way to underestimate the importance of reading. Stephen King boldly states in his book on writing that no one who omits reading can even call themselves a writer. Nothing inspires me to write like reading! I’d be bereft without my books. Great, great post! Thank you!

  2. Charlotte

    That’s a great idea, Roy, I may have to copy it. I think any writer could benefit from keeping notes about his or her reading.

  3. Roy

    Sing it Charlotte! 😉

    About a year ago, I took a standard little journal and turned it into a reading journal. I started with those lists of the top hundred books of the century, the top 50 books of The South…those sorts of things. Then I highlighted the books I’ve read on the lists and just started writing little entries about a book as I start and finish reading it. If I learn of a new book coming out I may like, I write it in the journal. It’s fun now to look back over the year and see the notes. And when I say ‘notes,’ I mean: what I learned as a writer from reading the book. (not a plot summary.)

  4. Lori

    I loved this post. Not just because it reinforces my belief that the more I read, the more I WANT to write, but also because it’s a great excuse for me to bring home a stack of books from the library every few days. More fuel for the fire!

  5. Essay Writing Insider

    Writing and reading should be a partner and I don’t think one of the two can stand alone. If you are not after reading, then what more other people? Writer should be the very first one to read their work.

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