One Simple Way to Improve Your Writing

Of all the writing advice out there, and believe me there is a lot, only one has had a marked impact on my writing.

Reading Advice

The advice comes from Dan Simmons, author of The Terror (highly recommend), Drood and the Hugo-award winning Hyperion, and it is the following:

“We may not really be what we eat, as the saying goes, but – as writers – we are, always, inescapably, what we read. Read mediocre work and make it your literary model, and someday your writing may rise to the dubious level of mediocrity. Study the best literary models and – while you may never equal them and even if you can just stay in the ring for one or two rounds with them — your own writing will benefit immeasurably from it.

This contradicts Stephen King’s advice in the otherwise excellent (and motivational) On Writing, where he basically says that aspiring writers should read everything they get their hands on, bad or good. So far, I’m with Mr. Simmons on what to read.

Just before the lines quoted above, Dan Simmons had the following to say of Hemingway:

“Were Hemingway a young man today, he wouldn’t be studying Dan Simmons or Stephen King or George R.R. Martin as his literary models; just as he did early in the last century, he’d be reading Tolstoy and Turgenev and Twain and Jane Austen and Shakespeare and the Bible and Dostoevsky and Conrad and Joyce and others. For decades, in his private correspondence, Hemingway would use boxing metaphors to describe which of his private greats he was sparring with in whatever novel or story he was working on. (“I went six rounds with Tolstoy today,” he’d brag to Scott Fitzgerald or others.) This is precisely the agon of which Harold Bloom and other literary critics write – “the anxiety of influence” in the sense of seeking out one’s literary antecedents and trying to compete with them, usurp them – and the endless need to sort one’s work out in terms of equal to, greater than, or less than.”

For the little while I have been an “aspiring” writer I have done as Dan Simmons suggested, and started reading books considered “the classics”. I discovered Dickens, Shakespeare, Hemingway, McCarthy, Joseph Conrad, Toni Morrison and more. Of the ones I read I think I was most impressed by Dickens, who I had previously assumed to be old-fashioned and a sort of childish or comical writer (judging from movie versions of Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol).  Toni Morrison’s Beloved is incredibly powerful, and a direct impact on my own writing, as did Michael Ondaatje and Conrad.

If you want to see Dan Simmons’ complete list of books-to-read, go here (it’s a forum post).

For myself, I will not say that my writing is of a Conrad-Dickens-Hemingway level, or even a King-Simmons-Martin level. What I will say, however, is that after I made an effort to read books of better quality, so my writing increased in quality.

Which group do you fall into; The King, read everything you get your hands on; or Dan Simmons’ read only “the best literary models”?