Looking at the pile of books awaiting return to the library, I realize that trips to the library constitute a top notch, life long learning, self-directed writing class, and I’ve been enrolled for decades. I especially love reading memoirs. I’m a sucker for the details of other people’s lives. I read for fun and to learn, but I’ve also learned to read with a writer’s eye. I pay attention to the way the content is structured, and I’m always on the lookout for elegant wording.
I also read a wide variety of fiction. Sue Grafton is a favorite for her wry humor, her occasional eloquent descriptions, and the general adventure of her novels. Rosamund Pilcher’s ability to pen lyrical prose is sublime, and some (but not all) of Anais Nin’s work gives me goose bumps.
When I find authors I admire, I study their style and the way they express ideas or describe scenes. I notice the selection of words, the pacing, the phrasing, the rhythm. Good writing is like a melody. It sticks in my mind. I flag succulent phrases and copy them into a collection I keep for inspiration and illustration.
Over time this exercise has had considerable influence on my writing style. This isn’t just a hunch. I have copies of a few early fiction stories I wrote around 1980. I’ve let a handful of other people read them, and they never believe I wrote that stuff. The plot is horrible and the words don’t flow. They are dreadful. I only keep them as a benchmark. Most of the difference is due to reading and developing more awareness of words. Without a good sense of what works to measure against, no amount of revision is likely to yield much improvement.
Structured classes and exercises from books are good. My writing has benefited from both. Maybe you’d expect a writing coach to say that, but you may not expect her to say that reading widely to study examples of excellent work use may possibly be the most powerful learning tool of all.
Of course I encourage people to buy books written by authors I enjoy, but I also encourage you to visit your local library often and check out arms full of the treasures you find there. In effect, you support the continued funding of your library by continually using its services, and you also pamper your personal budget. I check out at least one hundred books a year. I buy only a dozen or so. At an average price of $15 per book, that’s a huge saving.
While it’s good to read literature as examples, reading writing instruction books is also worthwhile. Check your library’s catalog for books on creative writing in general and writing memoir or lifestories in particular. If you don’t find any, ask them to order a few titles. Most libraries appreciate suggestions and are quickly responsive to reasonable requests for new acquisitions.
Whether you read literature or writing instruction books, make it a habit to read often, and practice writing like the masters you most admire.