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”?

16 thoughts on “One Simple Way to Improve Your Writing

  1. I think I’m better at emulating what I love and find passion in than I am trying not to be what is distasteful to me. In which case I’d say it’s more important to behold the beautiful in order to become more like it. In doing so, you will inevitably be steering a course away from what you dislike. I’d rather spend my time becoming one thing than trying not to become another.

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  2. I do not think either method is a “fits-all” for aspiring writers. Some writers will pick up bad habits and poor prose if they read work of lesser quality. Other writers have the ability to see mistakes or weaknesses in mediocre works and learn what readers to not enjoy so that they can avoid those things. I think the important thing is to know which of the two you are.

    Excellent post by the way! I loved the clarity with which you shared your thoughts.

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    1. Perhaps. I still think that a thorough reading of Bleak House or Gravity’s Rainbow will help your writing more than say, a thorough reading of Twilight or the latest James Patterson book.

      I’m a Simmons man, me.

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  3. I once received the following advice on how to improve my game design and it may theoretically apply to reading and writing books: “To become a great game designer you need to play more-or-less every game!”. Somewhat on par with what King suggests but there is a footnote to that advise.

    When playing bad games you’re playing only to learn; Why is it bad? What is it’s worst failing? How could it have been improved? Does it do something right? …and so on. Once you’ve more or less determined why the game is as bad as it is (or mediocre or uninteresting or shallow or whatever) you can safely turn it off and never play it again. This might only take 15-20 minutes in some cases, couple at most.

    The good games however you play with a completely different mindset. Here you’re trying to spot the things done well; What’s interesting? What draws you in? What are the core mechanics of the game? How does it immerse you in another world? Does it make you want to play it again the day after? …and so on. These questions are more often than not more difficult to answer than why a game sucks because to make a good game most of the important “hooks” need to be subtle enough for the player not to notice them or else you risk breaking immersion and reminding the player that he or she’s just sitting in front of a computer playing a game.

    And then there are some rare cases where the game is just so god-damn great that first you have to play it through purely for enjoyments sake with all your analytically “frog-dissecting” machinery turned off for the first play-through.

    I guess the theory is that you can learn from other’s mistakes but you need to be mindful that that’s what you’re doing, and then play mostly good games (or read good books) so your mind subconsciously learns what’s good and what’s not. But it you ignore the shitty games (or books) you might inadvertently make the same mistakes they did.

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  4. Reading does not improve your writing, I think that is a misunderstanding. Just as watching football doesn’t make you a better player. Messi didn’t become the best football player in the world today by playing FIFA on Playstation.

    The only thing that improves your writing is writing. Reading a whole different kind of books, be they bad or good, fiction or on writing, are helpful, give you a better understanding of character creation, story telling and how to build a text. But hands on experience, writing, re-writing and re-writing again and again, will hopefully in the end improve your writing. Should you find the first ever text created by the author (not the person) Hemingway, I guess you’d never even recognize the text for what it is. Through practice, constant re-writes and edits, he got better.

    Reading is helpful, no more, no less. It helps you define your own style, see where your faults lie. But to improve your writing you need to write. Simple as that.

    The best advice writers can get for getting better is to write. Write, write and write. Write fast, write more and be passionate about it. Write text you’d like to read. Feel the driving urge to tell stories, create worlds of fiction and fantasy. Read your own text, re-write them again and again until you feel that the words are composed of your blood, bones and soul. For writing is a hard fucking job and it drains you, like a vampire. And there are no easy ways to become good, better or even the best. Just hard manual labour.

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  5. I agree with Þórður Matthíasson but I, on the other hand, have something to add. I believe that you should read books you enjoy and try and decipher what makes you enjoy them. Similar to the ‘game’ theory that Þórður Matthíasson proposes, however it’s in the middle of King’s and Simmon’s opinion. If you enjoy literary classics, good for you! If you enjoy more than that or something else, I’m sure there are others who have this in common. It all contributes (in the end) to who your audience is for your writing.

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    1. That’s a great point. Reading should be a joy, and if you are slogging through classics to just be able to say “Yeah, I’ve read it.” than that clearly is not improving your writing. But finding some of the great books that you enjoy and deciphering them… now we are getting somewhere.

      I’m off to read The Great Gatsby again.

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      1. I found that important to note because I’m not much of a classics’ fan. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy any but it’s not the style of writing that I amazes me.

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  6. Just came across this post, and I agree and disagree. We should read good books as means to improve our writing. We should not shy away from reading poorly written books, even every so often, because that way we get to compare, learn, and avoid. After all, for an artist to find his or her own style, not only there have to be those he or she admires, but also those he or she never wishes to be like.
    Thank you for the post.

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    1. I actually came across something like this when reading a recent book that was, shall we say, less than excellent. There is a lot going on in the book but I never care because a) the characters are very one-dimensional, and it seems they had no lives prior to the events in the book (so I learned do give my characters background) and b) the dialogue is always just about the here and now, never about the world at large or about anything off topic. (So I learned to deepen dialogue.)

      Thanks for reading.

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  7. I think this advice is too simplistic, primarily for the fact that those ‘classics’ often mentioned aren’t necessarily the ‘best’ books. How are you judging on what’s good or bad? To say Tolstoy, Hemmginway etc … could equally be fashionable as it would be accurate.

    Then there’s the question of genre—which in today’s climate is inescapable. One genre’s ‘best’ might be another’s ‘worst’ when comparing the quality of a story. But one has to first define what ‘best’ is. What makes up a ‘good’ book, and is learning from it going to improve your work? I don’t think that’s guaranteed.

    Personally, I think one should read wide and far, not to somehow magically make you a better writer, but to increase your knowledge, the scope of your vocabulary, and the scale of what’s possible and what isn’t within a narrative structure. You can equally learn something from any book, whether it is considered good or bad—which given the subjective nature of literature, I’m not sure how one can say for certain beyond the very basics of writing.

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    1. Well, the person saying this is Dan Simmons, who writes horror and science fiction.

      He ends his list of great books with: “I would say that anyone writing for publication who hasn’t read the vast majority of the books above is — at the very least — at a serious disadvantage to those readers and authors who have.”

      And it is *this* that I think he is right about.

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