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Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Do writers read?

Well, of course they do, for the most part. But the real question is this: Does reading make you a better writer?

On an obvious level, I'd say yes. I don't think I've consciously copied anyone, but reading teaches you a lot by osmosis: it broadens your understanding of what's possible.

But the question is often asked with an underlying implication: Can you learn to write by reading? On that level, people get into arguments.

Personally, I think there's a limit to how much you can improve. I'd love to write as well as Shakespeare, but I could read him till I was blue in the face and it wouldn't make me as good. My basic starting stake of talent is too small; I can get to the top of my game, but it's in a different league from his, just as I could get faster if I ran sprints every morning but I'll never outpace an Olympic athlete. Talent isn't a fixed point, it's a spectrum: experience and hard work can push you further up in your range, but you're unlikely to rise past a certain optimum point.

Part of the argument, I think, is the fact that, as per the title of this post, writers do indeed read. They usually have a lot of books. This is a bit of a Venn diagram, though: writers read, but it doesn't necessarily mean that readers always write, or write well. If you love books enough to think it's worth the effort of writing them, chances are you'll love other books than your own, but it may be perfectly possible to love reading without becoming good at writing. I like to look at paintings, but I can't draw a stick-man without making a mistake somewhere. I'd probably draw better if I practiced, but I still wouldn't draw well. (I don't have the computer skills to post an example, but trust me, my draftsmanship is lousy.) I don't have the drawing bone. Having worked as an editor, I've regretfully read a lot of stuff by people who didn't seem to have the writing bone.

But what if they'd read more? Did they lack the writing bone so thoroughly that they couldn't have made use of what they'd read? Or might they have written better? Might they have written well? Based on the samples I read, I would have said no; it was a rule of thumb that if a piece of writing was below a certain standard, then the author didn't have the ability to make good use of advice on how to improve it; if they'd been able to improve it properly, they would have written a better first draft. Really bad writers produced bad rewrites. But then, I only had those samples to go on.

That's my theory, that people can work on their talent to get it to its maximum potential, but there's going to be a limit. But I've heard other people disagree with this. Do you?

Hmm. An interesting question. I would say that I agree in part. One's writing quality might have a natural threshold...some people just ain't as big of literary geniuses as others. However, I think one can constantly expand the tools in your writing toolbox. While your level of writing might not expand ad infinitum, you can constantly try new "ways" of writing, if that makes sense. And you can get better at those ways. Sure, there is a sense of natural talent...I can learn to play a piano, and possibly get good at it to a degree, but I'm never going to match those people who could play masterpieces while still in the womb. Still, a writer who might have reached his/her peak of skill can , instead of climbing higher into the sky, branch out a bit. Try some first-person stories if they've only written in third. Maybe even try success in a different genre, or some other career move that makes the agents and editors panic. It's all in where you want to go. The journey never ends until you let it.

I have a hard job believing in talent. We're all natural storytellers. Some people work on it; most don't. Some people are encouraged and enabled; many aren't.

I've seen two limiting factors to improvement. One is the inability to see that something requires improvement. People who lack skills also lack the skills necessary to assess their own performance. It's a two-edged sword. Their work is bad but they can't see that it's bad. Such people can go on forever churning out dross and wondering why it never sells.

The second is the inability to see "how" to improve. This is my situation. I know my writing needs to be better. I'm willing to work on it. I just don't see what it is I need to do. So I go on producing at about the same level, which seems to be some way below the level at which I can actually sell stuff. I just can't see what I'm doing wrong!
Have you tried writing groups? I got a lot of use out of them, and still sometimes sign up for one when I'm feeling in need of a kick-start. Last time I visited one, I had a chat in the pub afterwards with a very nice girl who was saying excitedly that, after weeks of trying to see what she needed to fix and thrashing work out with the group, she'd finally seen what she needed to do...
Reading is different for me now that I write. I notice things. Brick by brick, word by word, I improve.
At a slight tangent: talent only counts for so much.

I've encountered a couple of people who've shown me unfinished drafts of work that showed flashes of real talent; real natural ability. The problem? The drafts were unfinished. And they're still unfinished - and probably always will be unfinished.

The stubborn determination to finish things, and the courage to risk rejection by submitting them, are worth at least as much as talent in my opinion!
I haven't tried a face-to-face group; it's not very practical for me, unfortunately. I have ventured into one or two online writing groups, and found people very willing to help, but the help is often superficial. What most kicked my writing along a few years back was becoming a slush reader for a small press magazine. It's amazing how much you learn about what does and doesn't work.

And yet the darlings still venture out into the BWW only to get sent mewling home again. Next level, where art thou?
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