Bad Writing Advice: Reading Great Books Will Make You a Great Writer

Ever hear this saying: All great writers started out as great readers. How about this one: To write well, you need to read a lot of well-written books. Sound familiar? I call these little tidbits "fortune cookie writing advice".

Telling someone to read great books to learn how to be a great writer is as useful as that poster of the kitten hanging from a tree branch, with "Hang in there, kid" at the bottom. It's cute, and that's it. It's like saying that you can just listen to Beethoven, Nirvana, or Metallica, and become a great musician.

This statement may hurt a little, but I need to be honest with you. Without some inherent writing skills and honing of those skills through writing instruction, it's very unlikely you're going to bang out your first novel and people will think it's great.

So how did I learn to be a better writer? I went to the University of Pittsburgh and got my Bachelor's in Creative Writing.

Did I read a lot prior to that? Yes.

What did that teach me? Nothing.

Writing instruction + reading great books + life experiences + lots of editing = great writing. Period.

Let me give you an example. Here's an original, unedited part from Into the Darkness, which I started writing before college:

"When Willa died, you told me there was nothing I could have done to save her and still be alive myself, and you were probably right. The same applies to you. There wasn't anything you could've done to save your father, or Trion, or those people in Morghall, and still be alive now. If your father was anything like your aunt told me he was, I think he'd be upset that you're kicking yourself around instead of living." She paused. "And I . . . I need you."
Aeryn looked at her, clearly startled.
Theo looked away, uncomfortable with her own exposure. "Even though I'm afraid to, I'm going to fight the Harbinger. I'm doing it for Willa. I could die, but I believe Willa died because of me. I accept that. I need you to help me kill the Harbinger for Willa and all the rest who weren't strong enough. I need the strength I know you have in you and I don't."

It's . . . okay, right? Now, read this same scene, pulled from the final version of Into the Darkness, many years after that first attempt, after college, after a lot of life happened, and I got the services of a good editor.

“When Willa died, you told me there was nothing I could have done to save her and still be alive myself, and you were probably right. The same applies to you. There wasn’t anything you could’ve done to save your father, or save Trion, or those people in Morghall. If your father was anything like your aunt told me he was, I think he’d be upset now that you’re beating yourself up over his death.” She paused. “Besides that . . . I need you to help me.”
Aeryn looked startled by this.
Theo looked quickly away. “I’m afraid to, but I’m going to fight The Harbinger, whether you come or not. I have to do it for Willa. I believe she died because of me, so if I die, too, it would be fitting. I need you to help me try to kill The Harbinger, for Willa and Brien, and all the rest. I need the strength I know you have in you, that I don’t have in me.”

Notice the difference?

I'm not saying that you need to go to college to be a great writer. Lots of great writers didn't go to college. What I am saying is you need some kind of formal instruction -- be it through college classes, writing workshops, webinars, or books on writing (I highly recommend Stephen King's On Writing, in fact) -- in order to understand the mechanics of the written word. That is the only way you can take those lessons you learn as a reader and know how to apply them as a writer.

Otherwise, you're just the person listening to Nirvana, thinking you can play guitar great in no time at all.

A.M.

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