Friday, 10 April 2009

How Writers Improve

We know that most of the writing in the slush pile is dreadful; and that the less able writers are often simply unable to understand how their writing is bad, or precisely how bad it is.

We know that writers’ message boards and peer review sites can be of questionable value when the writers who populate them aren’t very good at their craft; and while some paid-for editorial and critique services can be useful, others are simply appalling and many writers just can’t afford to pay for them, regardless of the quality.

There are writing groups but the dynamics might not be right for everybody and here we are back to that problem of the general standard of talent and ability of the writers who attend. Writing MAs can be useful but aren’t without their issues either.

Self-help books might be the answer for some: there are plenty of books which offer advice on how to write more books—although you have to be careful here, too, as there are plenty of dubious value.

So how can writers really learn to write well? By reading other people’s books, and plenty of them. The classics, which show what endures; the big sellers, which help us understand storytelling, pacing and plot; and the books which win literary prizes which demonstrate subtlety and depth.

Reading is something that writers just can’t skimp on. While it’s nice to build up your own personal library if you can afford it, there’s no need to buy new books: use your local library, if it’s still open; buy your books second-hand; or use Book Crossing. Just write every day, and read more often than you write, and your writing will improve.


Tania Hershman said...

YES. That's really all I wanted to say. Exactly. You are spot on. Writing groups, whether online or not, are not democracies, it is possible that the whole group is wrong about a particular story, and (as I have seen from personal experience), a writing teacher can also be mistaken in the advice he or she gives, and a student needs to be strong enough to resist. Reading is the ONLY way, pure and unadultered, to learn about how to write, to learn what you love about writing and to see how it is done, to examine the work of your favourite writers and look under the hood, as it were. I am teaching a short story class and I suspect most of them don't read short stories. Would you expect to be able to, say, drive a car if you'd never seen a car?

Donna Hosie said...

I think I am going to have to send a link to this site to every friend I have, whether they write or not. I've just returned from seeing a group of friends who wanted me to go through their children's Year 9 reading list with my recommendations. My advice was to mix it up: Anne of Green Gables is a beautifully paced, age appropriate book, but something more challenging like Rebecca will help their use of language.
It doesn't matter whether a reader/writer is 15 or 45, the more you read, the more varied your chosen books, the more you learn. (I'm currently reading The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson which is just exquisite - perhaps one day you could blog about reader recommendations? I love hearing what other writers are reading.)
Happy Easter, Jane.

TOM VOWLER said...

Yes, reading and little else, but, in defence of CW MAs, mine taught me to be a critical reader. This meant a certain loss of innocence, as I now never read something passively, letting the words fall on me, the story just unfold. I am constantly looking for what the author is trying to do/achieve, how they are setting it up, manipulating me if you like.

So yes, only reading those who've done it well will learn you, but an understanding of the mechanics of storytelling can enrich the experience.

Sally Zigmond said...

Once again, Jane, you are absolutely right. Nothing more to add except... never ceases to amaze me how many unpublished writers tell me they 'don't have time' to read. Unbelievable.

Nicola Morgan said...

"don't have time to read" !!! Arghhh. It's part of the "job", as Jane says. I agree, Sally - incredible.

I'd also maybe add that when you're a writer reading in order to learn what works and in order to absorb successful aspects,(ie being the sort of reader that Tom describes) you'd want to look most closely at the books being written NOW (or say last 3-5 years)and within the GENRE that you are writing in. So, having a feel for the voice etc of modern lit fic won't help you that much if you're writing, eg, crime fiction or historical. Or whatever.

But as writers we should also read sometimes for pure pleasure, "passively", otherwise it all becomes like a job. And who knows, we might shift our goals too.

Jane's point about writers' groups/critque groups is one I agree with too - and jane, I have never forgotten your brilliant Angela/Beverley/C???? post (though I have forgotten the name beginning with C! Christine???)

Jane Smith said...

The only word that springs to mind right now is Crap, Nicola. I've not yet had quite enough coffee!

Tom, I loved taking my MA but can't say I share your experience of it helping me become a more critical reader, I'm afraid (and I do hope you followed the links I added about MAs because they're a hoot).

Meanwhile, let me quote Sally who is, once again, spot on: never ceases to amaze me how many unpublished writers tell me they 'don't have time' to read.

Bolding mine. Ha!

(By the way, Nicola, do drop by here tomorrow morning, around 10am. There's a post due then that I'd welcome your comments on: I don't usually flag them up like this but this one is pretty significant and you're perfectly-placed to respond to it.)

Rod H said...

Your view is entirely sensible. My only caveat would be reading the classics, since writing in certain classic styles would go down like a lead balloon these days.

Lurking beneath the term 'classic' is also the theory of the 'test of time,' though this test isn't always to be trusted, as a critic by the name of Richards (can't remember his first name) pointed out many moons ago.

I know nothing about creative writing MAs, but wonder if there isn't a production line element to such courses? The 'classic' authors seemed to get by without them.

TOM VOWLER said...

I remember a new writer, who apparently specialised in short fiction, telling me they'd never heard of William Trevor, let alone read him. He's one of the absolute masters in your form, I said. Oh, he said.

I did like Jenn's wry piece on MAs, yes. I did a less flippant one myself here:
if you don't mind me linking to it, Jane.

HelenMWalters said...

I couldn't agree more about the reading thing, and one of the things I've found since I've started reviewing books is that I'm reading things I wouldn't normally choose myself which is widening my experience of genre and styles.

I attended a writing course a few years ago when I hadn't been writing for long. At the beginning of the first session the tutor went round the room and asked everyone what they liked to read. About three quarters of the group said they didn't read at all. I'm still not quite over the shock.

green_knight said...

I don't think reading as such will teach a writer anything. You need to be able to work out what the writer is doing, relate it to your own writing, and apply those techniques. Just inhaling books as many of us do, and letting yourself be entertained will not improve your writing;

I think reading critically is an important part of learning to write, but so is writing and getting feedback and rewriting. Learning to analyze other people's words and learning to analyze your own words go hand in hand.

Emily Cross said...

I've just read a very funny and helpful book 'how not to write a book' which i would recommend to any unpublished writer.

unlike a lot of helpbooks which are all about the 'good' etc. this book gives examples of common mistakes that make MS get rejected. I thought it was great because if your honest you'll see some things that you would be guilty of, whether its the classic 'whispered quietly' dialogue tag or 2d characters who are perfect.

Great Post, although i found this book helpful and useful, in the end 'practice makes perfect' (yup, theres a bit about cliches, but i'll ignore that for this post ;) )

Sally Zigmond said...

Whilst there's a lot in what you say, Green Knight, I believe that if you've read from a very early age (as most published writers have), the majority of the books read will have been for pleasure and entertainment alone. However, the techniques of pace and narrative, the way fiction is structured--not to mention spelling and grammar--will to a large extent have already percolated into the brain.

It's only later (or if you've studied Eng Lit, as I have) that you find yourself analysing everything you read to find out what works and what doesn't. Even so, there are plenty of novels I find myself more than half way through without having analysed a word having been swept along! That, to me, is the sign of a bloody good book (whether literary or popular) and only afterwards do I try and work out why.

Barb said...

How can people not read? Are they dead from the neck up?

Bradley Robb said...

Fantastic little post.

Emma Newman said...

At a talk given to the school I used to teach at, Michael Murpurgo said "People say you are what you eat. I don't agree. You are what you read." It stuck.

I agree with you entirely. Only tuppence I'd like to toss in is that I find it's critical to read several different books / authors at a time, or at least in a row, otherwise I am in danger of unintentionally mimicking their style. I realised this when I went back to edit some material I wrote a couple of years ago. All of the metaphors had a certain flavour as I had been reading the Iliad at the time and nothing else. Bad idea.

Nicola Morgan said...

I am now going to follow all the links that everyone's come up with (thanks, all!) re Creative Writing MAs, as I have a blog post planned on the extent to which one can be taught to write, and will be mentioning a new CW MA just being started in Edinburgh by a good friend of mine - she's wonderfully forthright and I expect her to be keen to engage in debate with anyone who drops by too ... (I have interviewed her briefly for the post but, er, not written it).

Jane, your wish is my command but I am now very scared. What are you dumping me in? I'm very delicate, you know.

I never get decent word verifications but I love this one: grurpho

Sarah J. MacManus said...

I've found that the ease of accessibility of internet boards and groups makes them pretty worthless as critique groups.

I have extremely literate friends who also write, but I hate to distract them as much as I dislike being distracted myself. Besides, how unbiased can they be?

Reading helps. Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of picking up the voice of whoever I'm reading at the time; and I tend to read writers with very distinctive voices. NOT GOOD. I'll have to try Emma's trick.

Karen said...

In most of the 'how-to' books I've read over the years there's generally been a lightbulb moment where I've though "ah yes! That's what I need to do" but mostly I've got better by doing as you suggested and writing every day.

Also I've read avidly since I was old enough to hold a book and I now read as a writer which helps tremendously with getting a feel for structure. said...

May I add a note of dissent and say that I have found it very useful to use Not only have several of their authors now been published and done well, but it's really helpful to hear what a cross section of people think about your work.

I never take very seriously the ones which say "My writing teacher says you should never use two adjectives next to each other so I'm marking you right down for style."

But these are people who are interested in reading and writing, people that we hope will buy our books when we get published.

Should we really be brushing their opinions aside because they're not professional literary critics?

Jane Smith said...

Jenny, I don't think I've seen you here before: welcome to my blog.

Should we really be brushing their opinions aside because they're not professional literary critics?

That's not what I'm suggesting at all: just that reading what works is going to help a writer develop, whereas listening to other writers who are as yet unpublished is not to be relied upon. As you've pointed out, some of the advice given is worthless; how can the novice writer filter out the good from the bad? How do you know they know what they're talking about? It's a bit of a lottery and while it might help, it might also do a great deal of harm.

Paul Lamb said...

I always feel when I read your admonitory posts that you're writing specifically to me.

I agree with all of your points though. Especially the insistence on reading. That really is the best way.

catdownunder said...

Living on the other side of the world I get to Jane about 10 hours late.
If anyone is still reading this can they please explain what makes a prize winning novel? Some I have tried to read are incomprehensible.
I read - probably far too much - so I do not think it is lack of practice. I think I have a modicum of intelligence but I find some prize winning authors to be self-indulgent navel gazers.

Melinda Szymanik said...

I kind of disagree with green knight about not benefiting by just inhaling books. I am surprised how much I have absorbed subconsciously through all the reading I have done over the years, whether its novels, picture books or short stories. Some one pointed out to me a while back that I had followed a particular rule with picture books that I hadn't known of or consciously applied. When I read, I know what I like, and then, I guess, it comes out when I write.

And yes, yet again, another really good piece of advice - thank you!!

none said...

I recommend a good dose of reading slush. You're reading critically, and you will be exposed to Every Mistake It's Possible To Make. Multiple times. It sharpens your faculties no end.

none said...

Cat, the prizewinning novel is the one that all the judges couldn't understand.

Sally Zigmond said...

Catdownunder wrote:

"If anyone is still reading this can they please explain what makes a prize winning novel? Some I have tried to read are incomprehensible.
I read - probably far too much - so I do not think it is lack of practice. I think I have a modicum of intelligence but I find some prize winning authors to be self-indulgent navel gazers."

That's an excellent point, Cat, and one that I think needs to be discussed. In fact I feel a blog post coming on...

But, just for now, I'll just say that 'prize-winning' does not necessary mean great novel, unless it stands the test of time and is coupled by sales. And I do think that judges of some competitions choose what they think will reflect well on them rather than what, in their hearts, they really enjoyed reading. And the Booker Prize, for one, has had, over the years, a tendency of going for the novel the panel didn't have much of an opinion on either way.

As I said, you've got me thinking, but I need a lot more coffee first.

writtenwyrdd said...

Excellent points both in the article and the comments.

I'm constantly amazed by the wide spectrum of opinions that writers have about writing, what are good tactics, what works, what doesn't, etc. Everyone can back up their opinions, everyone sounds so wise (likewise the help books) but there is no One True Path to the perfect novel, apparently. ;)

For myself, I think that reading thousands of books had informed my eye well before I tried to write seriously. An English BA furthered my skills. But I think that what really helps me improve as a writer (besides the writing itself) is immersion in writing from conversations on writing blogs, chats with critique partners, doing critiques, and, yes, perusing the odd self-help book on writing.

(I notice you linked to me by the way. Thank you!)

nmj said...

I tend to agree with Green Knight's first comment, reading is hugely important to writing, but it is the writing itself that will improve you. Practise, practise, practise.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Very interesting post/thread/discussion. 'Read read read,' I was taught. 'Write write write.' AND 'submit submit submit.' Find out if you are doing OK by getting affirmation from well respected editors and judges. If all you get is rejections, there may be a good reason, a craft based reason, and with the right feedback you can work on those mistakes and improve.

But I also think there is a place for good writing groups. Not guru-led. Just hard-working, intelligent writers giving intelligent objective feedback based on the words in front of them. Prepared to debate, argue and share. And most importantly, prepared to be wrong! Its the only way to learn... recognising that there are other/better ways to write than you already do.

Dorset Girl said...

I agree absolutely about the importance of reading. Andrew Motion (Poet Laurette in the UK) was creative writing professor at the celebrated East Anglia writing course. When he stopped working there, he complained about the number of students who wanted to write but did not read. I do worry (and sorry if I'm offending someone)about the writers on Authonomy who want to be brilliant at writing without reading. Andrew Motion claimed that his students would be better off saving their money and reading the classics. He even provided a reading list! See the article below:

I also believe in practice. The old adage 'The first draft of everything is shit'. People keep asking me how many drafts I wrote of my first novel before it was accepted by the publisher. The answer is lots and lots and lots. And I'm still not quite finished!

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

Jane, this is spot on. Great to see you mention book crossing, by the way - it's a great idea.

I think I'd agree with Rod H about certain caveats - just to avoid those uncomprehending writers who plaintiffly say "but Jane Austen was all tell no show". It's good to read around everything - really good to focus on people who write the kind of thing you want to write,

BUT - writers have different takes on what to read when theyr'e actually writing - some people find it really helpful to read something similar to what they're writing; others find it really distracting and need to read something else altogether - but it goes without saying that unless you actually read you can't know which is you!

I always have about 10 books on the go; and every lunchtime I'm not writing I'm foraging round Waterstones for the next 10. I guess I only actually finish 2 a week, more in the hols, which is pretty poor - but reading nothing? I just don't get it.

Apart from anything else - if writers have no soul and can't see how to improve from reading - think of it purely commercially - how do you know to whom to sell your book unless you know what else they read? Whether you're going the standard route (in which case an agent wants to know to whom your book will appeal) or self-pubbing (in which case you need to know exactly where to find your readers) you can't do your job unless you know what else your readers read. People may think it's just the trivia hoarder in me that knows exactly what's on my target market's shelves (David Mitchell, Murakami, Dubravka Ugresic, Kundera, Tom McCarthy, Rivka Galchen, Houellebecq), but the way I see it is - I'm trying to talk to READERS when I write. Unless I'm not only one of them but know and love what they know and love, any of them that do read my book will just feel short-changed.

And remember this. We all like to think we're "original", that we don't need to copy, but even Mozart started off by writing pastiches. Unless he'd heard them first he'd have had nothing to pastiche.

Imogen said...

This is a fascinating discussion/string - in fact this website altogether is the kind of thing that makes the internet worthwhile.
Thank you and keep it up - I will (try to) keep a note of this blog and come back to it.
Best wishes,
PS: As a keen amateur singer I love the fact that my "word verification" code is "recit"!

Anonymous said...

Agree with all this, which is when I'm asked to recommend a how-to-write book, I start by recommending how-to-read books: Francine Prose, David Lodge, John Mullan...

Having said that, it's horses for courses, isn't it. Yes, inhaling books is how we first experience them, and it does train your instincts, just as six year olds all learn to read partly by recognising whole words. But we all need conscious craft too, just as we need ways to break an unknown word down into phonics and reassemble it into sense.

Which is why I think it goes read, read, read; write, write, write and only then is it wise to go out and find whatever feedback suits you. The more you've written, and written with some meta-awareness of your writerly process, the better you've got to know your writerly self, and the better you'll judge feedback and find the right kind for you.

David Dittell said...


I'll also add that the benefit of a writer's group is less people's critiques of your writing (though these are often helpful), but your finding fault in their writing.

Every "mistake" or poor stylistic choice you catch someone else making is one less you'll make yourself.