Archives for February 2015

How You Can Write Better through Osmosis

One of the easiest, most enjoyable, least expensive ways to grow as a writer is to read well-written books. Let me explain.

Reading good books will make you a better writer.

Reading well-written books will make you a better writer.

My oldest daughter is an avid reader, excitedly devouring books since she was old enough to hold one in her little hands. In elementary school she amused my wife and me when she would use advanced words in everyday conversation, but mispronounce them (she still does that). The words came to her naturally because she had read them, but just had never heard them pronounced correctly.

At sixteen years old, her writing is outstanding, partly because she has a gift and she’s worked to develop it, but mostly, I believe, because she surrounds herself with excellent writing and can’t help but put out the quality she has put in.

Learning to write better can be like learning a second language. My family and I spent 2012 outside the USA and we were put in an immersion experience. The first two months were a challenge for my kids. When they came home from school frustrated with not being able to understand and reciprocate in the language, we encouraged them to:

  1. Listen (it’s how babies learn to speak).
  2. Be bold and put into practice what you hear (if you don’t use what you’re hearing, you’ll be among the many foreign language students who get top scores on a grammar test but can’t carry on the simplest of conversations).
  3. Be patient. You’re learning even if you don’t notice an immediate change (babies understand very early, but aren’t talking in full sentences until two to four years old).

In the same way, you can become a better writer if you will:

  • Read great writing.
  • Challenge yourself to write better each time you write, whether for an email or a full-length book.
  • Be patient and see small signs of growth.

At this time I read and write mostly nonfiction as an editorial director, and I primarily coach nonfiction writers. A critical element to writing well—even with nonfiction—is the ability to tell a story well. So for about the last six months I’ve been seeking out good stories to read to develop this side of my writing skills. Three books I read recently that I enjoyed include:

  • Falling into Heaven by Mickey Robinson. A gripping story of a skydiver who crashes in a plane, has a near-death experience and goes to heaven, and then comes back to earth to overcome multiple physical impossibilities and experience God’s miraculous intervention and healing.
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The amazing story of Louis Zamperini (it’s way better than the movie by the way).
  • The Alchemist by Paul Coelho. A modern classic about a shepherd boy who yearns to travel in search of a worldly treasure and discovers the true longing of his heart.

Years ago when I was an English teacher, one of my top students turned in a paper. As I read it, I realized that even though it was probably one of the best papers I would read from the class, I knew he had put it together the night before and didn’t stretch himself to learn anything new. So I gave him a lower grade.

When he saw his grade, he came to talk with me. I asked him, “Do you feel you grew in any way by doing this paper, or did you just use the skills you already possess just to get the assignment done?” The next paper he did for me was extraordinary.

I invite you to challenge yourself in two ways today:

  • Purchase and read one of the books I’ve recommended or another well-written book that will influence your own writing.
  • Each time you write. Don’t just churn out information with the same skill set. Practice makes permanent, so unless you’re improving, you’re actually moving backward.

Question: What’s the last really good book you’ve read that’s inspired you and helped your own writing?

Please comment below.