The first step to becoming a writer is reading books and learning how other writers have done it. Books will show you what’s possible and help you to develop your own writing style.
If you want to become a good writer you need to read.
Reading lots of different books will show you how stories are put together and how characters, setting and dialogue are presented in a way that will hold the reader’s attention. You need to read old and new books, from around the world, that have been written by men and woman, from every possible background. If you’re uncertain where to begin, your country’s national library or main newspaper will probably have a book list. The Guardian newspaper has one for the UK here:
Find your local library
Your local library will have or can order books about almost anything you can imagine. You can borrow library books for free, which means there’s no pressure to keep reading if you don’t like a book. You can now also borrow eBooks from most libraries, and websites like Project Gutenberg let you download and keep some eBooks for free. In the UK, you can find your nearest library here:
Start reading and thinking more deeply
If you want to improve your writing, it isn’t enough to just read books; you need to take them apart and see what they’re made of. What is the author trying to get across about a character or event and how have they done this? What have they told you directly in the words on the page and what do you pick up from what has been implied? What do you notice about the direction and flow of the storyline? You might find it helpful to do some research on the author and learn how the book was written and published. The circumstances in which a writer works and the history of their books can change the way you read and open up new areas of interest.
Always be on the look out for stories
As well as reading lots of books, think about how stories are presented in other places. Graphic novels, films, TV, radio, theatre, poetry and music all have storylines and characters and use different methods to present them. This doesn’t mean you can just watch a re-run of any old sitcom; you need to find quality content and look at it critically. Why do you care about the characters? How has funny dialogue been set up? What has the writer left out to fit the programme’s time slot? How are flashbacks or other narrative devices used to progress the story? Thinking about different ways of telling a story will help you when you come to write.
Find a system for collecting your ideas and things that you like
If you’ve started reading more and thinking about what you read, it won’t be too long before you find something in a book that you want to come back to in the future. Some people keep a notebook for quotes, notes and ideas, or you can use the notepad app on your phone. You can also use this as a place to start writing lines of dialogue and short sections that you might use in your writing. If you want to mark things out in a book, do it in pencil or on sticky notes that can be removed so the book isn’t marked.
If you really don’t like a book, then stop reading it.
This is a controversial point, but it won’t do you any good to keep fighting a book that you hate. Clearly you need to read every page of a book that has been set for school or college work, but when you’re reading for yourself you can be more picky. You don’t have to finish every book you read, but you need to learn about the ways a story can develop and you won’t be able to do this if you keep bailing out of books. Read things that you like but also read things that aren’t easy to read. It might be hard but, like a sportsperson in training, you have to push yourself and work to build your skills.
Read non-fiction books
Some of the most exciting, interesting and unbelievable stories you will ever read are true. Reading non-fiction books will help you to understand the wider world, learn about history and see things from other people’s perspectives. It will help you to develop your knowledge and make your writing more realistic. Start slowly with popular journalism and biographies (a person’s life story) and build up to philosophy, science and the arts.
Think about how you take books in
If you can’t get to the library to pick up new books, you could download eBooks to an eReader. If you don’t have an eReader, you might be able to use an app on your phone to read eBooks. Audiobooks can also be useful if you don’t have time to read. You can listen to someone reading a book while you do the dishes, work out, walk to school or drive to work. Find out if your local library offers audiobooks and eBooks or try a free trial on a website like Audible.
Start looking at how books have been put together
It’s not just the words in a book that are important; how they’re presented also matters. What fonts have been used? How have new chapters or sections been laid out? How is the text laid out? Look at some experimental fiction to see extreme examples of the way stories have been presented. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn and Sophie Someone by Hayley Long are a great place to start if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary.
Taking a break from reading might help your writing
Writing is not easy and sometimes it needs your full attention. If you’re finding it hard to get to grips with your work, it might help to avoid reading long or complicated books. Short stories can be easier to take in, or you could write during the week and then read a book at the weekend. Do what feels right for you. The books in the library will be waiting for you when you’re ready.
If you haven’t already, have a look at my Tips for Writing.