What’s the secret to being a good writer? Aspiring wordsmiths often think the answer is shrouded in mystery. New Yorker staff writers and Pulitzer-prize winning novelists— they think— might possess this arcane knowledge but they keep it locked away like a buried treasure in a cave. To access it, you have to know the magic words open sesame.
But being a good writer is actually quite simple: you have to read.
“Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river,” Virginia Woolf wrote as she contemplated the inseparable connection between reading and writing. Ray Bradbury urged aspiring artists to devour as much material as possible: “If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting” (Mr. Bradbury must be on to something…he wrote more than 30 books and nearly 600 short stories). Stephen King put it more simply, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Towering intellect and titan of criticism Susan Sontag would have to agree. In her distinctively discerning essay “Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite, Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed,” one of many thought-provoking pieces in the New York Times Writers on Writing, Sontag makes the convincing argument that you can’t write unless you read. We usually think of the writing process as a series of predictable steps we learned in 3rd grade: brainstorm, outline, draft, revise, edit. However, this formula neglects a fundamental stage: reading. Reading is integral to revising: we must first become master readers before we can assess what’s working and what’s not working in our own writing. As Sontag writes with characteristic acuity:
“…to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading. You write in order to read what you’ve written and see if it’s OK and, since of course it never is, to rewrite it— once, twice, as many times as it takes to get it to be something you can bear to reread…Hard to imagine writing without rereading.”
Every week in my writing workshop class, we have to critique our classmates. At first, I resented the exercise: helping others revise their work kept me from my own writing (after all, I only have so many hours in a day). But now I realize that assessing others sharpens my critical faculties. If I can comprehend why another person’s story isn’t working (their central message is unclear, their characters are cardboard cutouts instead of three-dimensional people, their writing is clunky), I can apply those lessons to my own writing. In the same way, when one of my classmate’s stories is working, it inspires me. Nothing rekindles my creative fire quite like encountering an evocative bit of imagery or a sharp turn-of-phrase.
Ultimately, reading ignites writing. Reading a good book can electrify us with an ecstatic lightening bolt of inspiration and send our fingers flying. But if we read too much, we might compare our not-yet-developed first drafts to the masterpieces of literary giants and find ourselves wanting. No writer is safe from the torture chamber of comparison. Though Virginia Woolf was certainly a genius in her own right, she found herself overcome by crippling writer’s block any time she read Marcel Proust. “Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence,” she wrote in 1922.
In an incisive passage, Sontag captures this complex relationship between reading and writing:
“Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer. And long after you’ve become a writer, reading books others write— and rereading the beloved books of the past— constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing. Distraction. Consolation. Torment. And, yes, inspiration.”
“I hate writing, I love having written,” lady of wisecracks Dorothy Parker famously quipped. You’d be hard pressed to find a writer who didn’t agree with this sentiment. The act of writing is often agony and anguish. There’s nothing more formidable than facing the blank page’s daunting nothingness.
But if writing is torment, revision is bliss. The first stages of writing are like the first stages of gardening. There’s a lot of difficult decisions, not to mention drudgery: you have to choose the proper plot of land and the kinds of flowers you want to grow, you have to till the soil. But once your seeds are planted and begin to bloom, most of your work is maintenance: you water, you pull weeds, you prune.
Once you have a first draft, you’ve arranged your thoughts into some sort of logical order. You’ve accomplished the most difficult task: assembling your ideas into a coherent form so they can be transported into someone else’s consciousness.
“Having written” is the less laborious, more fun part of the writing process. Once you’ve overcome the paralysis of beginning and gotten something, anything, down on the page, you can commit yourself to the more pleasurable work of revising. Revising is weeding out unnecessary repetition and awkward phrasing, cutting away overgrown bushes of syntax so your reader can more readily understand your thinking. Revising is replacing recycled ideas and commonplace cliches with fresh turns-of-phrase. It’s replacing close-but-not-quite-right-words with more precise words that exactly convey your meaning. Refining your work is endlessly satisfying. As Sontag writes,
“…though this, the rewriting— and the rereading— sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing. Sometimes the only pleasurable parts. Setting out to write, if you have the idea of ‘literature’ in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade.
Let’s say, it’s a mess. But you have a chance to fix it. You try to be clearer. Or deeper. Or more eloquent. Or more eccentric. You try to be true to the world. You want the book to be more spacious, more authoritative…As the statue is entombed in the block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it. You try to get this wretched stuff on the page closer to what you think your book should be— what you know, in your spasms of elation, it can be.”