If your new year’s resolution involves improving your writing, here’s a good place to start – an idea you may not have considered:
It sounds almost counterintuitive.
Reporters who want to become better writers often think in terms of classes or workshops or coaching by veteran writers. And all of those are good things. But maybe one of the best ways to improve your writing is just to read.
But don’t all journalists read a lot? Actually, no. We do read reports and meeting minutes and the results of Google searches. And of course, our own newspaper.
That’s a start. But are you reading some of the nation’s top journalists and other really good writers? How often do you read something and say, “Wow. That’s really good. I wish I could write like that.”
It has never been as easy as today for writers everywhere to read the best journalism produced in the world. So let’s spend a few minutes looking at why this is so important and how you can improve your writing, just by reading.
The first step is expanding the amount of great writing you are exposed to every day. The best way to do that is through social media. On Facebook, follow The New York Times and The Washington Post. On email, sign up for newsletters from these papers that will deliver a sampling of great writing to your inbox every day. And on social media, follow some important news feeds for community journalists. TCCJ has compiled a list for you here. Click on several of these that look interesting. In a few minutes on email and social media, you can have an exciting sampling of great writing coming to your computer every day. Often, you’ll just skim through without reading anything – but if you read three or four great news stories or feature stories or depth journalism pieces a week, your writing will definitely improve over the next few months.
Just by reading. Nothing else.
Of course, you can maximize the experience by collecting great sentences or great leads or passages of description you admire. Within a few months, you would have, say, a collection of maybe 20 leads you love.
Then, when you’re stuck, go back and read through that list. Find something you can model your own lead on.
That isn’t plagiarism, unless you copy word for word.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, schools taught writing by what they called “copywork.” Students just copied from books acknowledged to be great writing. It considered an effective way to teach students handwriting as well as grammar, punctuation and syntax. Good writing is more than copying, but it can be a great first step toward improving your style – sort of like using training wheels when you are learning to ride your bike. Copywork meant that students had to read good writing and then copy it – and perhaps absorb the style and feel of well-written prose.
You’re not going to copy great writing, but you should at least be reading it.
When you read good journalism – not necessarily study it, but just consume it as a reader, you’ll get a better feel for what to write about. One of the best places to get story ideas is from great stories. You’ll see all kinds of articles you can localize for your paper. Or at least the article you read will spark an idea that you can develop for one of your own.
How can you ever write great prose unless you read it? Sports psychologists have urged basketball players to practice free throws in their heads, imaging themselves with perfect form, launching a shot that swished the net. And those who practiced in their minds were as successful as those who practiced in the gym. The pictures in our heads help to determine our performance – so we need to get lots of “pictures” of good writing into our minds.
And while you should read great journalism, you shouldn’t limit yourself to journalism. Read novels and non-fiction, too. You can learn a lot about descriptive writing and dialogue from a well-crafted novel.
The novelist William Faulkner came to the same conclusion about the value of reading: “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”
Also consider poetry. There’s no better way to develop a feel for language and meter and word-choice than poetry. Go to a used book store, where you can find a poetry anthology that some poor undergraduate probably paid more than $100 for. You can probably get it for less than $5. Then try to read a couple of poems a week – maybe even memorize some lines that you especially like.
Novelist Stephen King has said that “the real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing.” He’s right. Journalists tend to be of a practical turn of mind, so we think of writing improvement in terms of workshops and classes. But don’t overlook settling back with a good magazine article or a well-written news story or a novel – even a poem – as a way of improving your journalistic writing style.