Jarrett and I had the most fantastic staycation between Christmas and the new year. It felt so, so good to relax and get a few long-standing projects done around the house. The week was full of crazy exciting things like gift-wrapping and Costco shopping and house cleaning. We’re a wild bunch here.
There was also, of course, a lot of reading. I’m reading about four books at the same time right now, and while I’m not quite sure how I get myself into this love rectangle, it’s been magical.
Once again, one of my new year’s resolutions this year is to read more. To read well. To read where my interests lead me and explore new kinds of relationships with new kinds of books and new ways of thinking.
I will always believe that reading well is the single most important commitment any writer, creative, or curious person can make.
When I started out in publishing I had a sort of weird job: I was the editorial assistant for both a nonfiction imprint and a genre romance imprint. It was incredible—one minute I’d be writing a tipsheet for a bestselling author’s next cookbook and the next I’d be editing racy copy for a romance novel. My desk was equal parts “Lose 20 pounds in 20 days!” and “Has the billionaire cowboy finally met his match”? It was fun.
Working on series romance was a huge stroke of luck since it meant I got to edit manuscripts and build my own author list right away. I will never forget the day a Senior Editor handed me a manuscript and asked if I wanted to take a crack at editing a book. I ran back to my desk, grabbed a red pen, and started reading—I had officially made it! I was editing A BOOK. A real book. People were going to read this book I was editing. I would edit it until it was the best book that had ever existed. My comments would be profound yet kind. My edits would be impeccable.
Two paragraphs into the manuscript, I hated my life. The book was awful. It was boring, clunky, empty words, one after the other after the other. Words plodding along for two hundred tiresome pages. I began to fantasize about quitting. It seemed the only humane thing to do, for the author and for myself. I would write a brilliantly worded resignation letter, and it would show them my true genius and talent. Genius and talent that shouldn’t be wasted on this drivel.
Instead, I gave myself a mental slapping around, pointed out to myself that there isn’t a speck of genius or talent to be found on me, and kept reading. I edited one such manuscript every month for the next nearly 3 years, and I learned something very important:
The mere act of writing will never make you a better writer.
You can pound away at the keyboard for the next infinity years and never have output that’s any good.
Because to output good writing you need to input good writing. It’s that simple.
If you don’t read outside of the echo chamber of your genre or category, it won’t matter how disciplined you are about sticking to a write-every-day resolution. You won’t one day emit good writing just because you’ve hit some imaginary threshold of word count or books completed. Good is honed, and to hone a precision edge you need to scuff up against something that’s stronger than you.
You need to read good writing.
That’s the first thing I tell every aspiring writer who asks me for advice on getting published. And it’s the first thing every writer—no matter where they are in their career—should put at the top of their resolution list. It’s non-negotiable.
Read The New Yorker; read books on the New York Times bestseller list; read critically acclaimed books in your genre; read The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times; read Pulitzer winners and the best books of the year. Just read good writing.
And don’t ever read bad writing.
The process of reading is the process of listening, and developing an ear for fluid prose is how you learn to write fluid prose. Every input you give your brain adds another data point for the rhythms and sounds of written language. Essentially, what you put in is what you get out.
So don’t put bad writing into your brain. Just like eating low-quality food is bad for your health, consuming low-quality writing is bad for your writer’s ear. The clichés, the lazy phrasing, the pompous reaching, the empty fluff will vibrate in your writer’s ear just as much as a perfectly turned sentence. Curate your inputs, and your mind will become attuned to the rhythms of good writing.
Once the sound of good writing is lodged inside you, then you can tackle all the other resolutions that have to come next: sticking to a writing schedule; connecting with readers; networking with other writers; learning how to market your work.
But start with reading. Each and every year.
This post was originally published one year ago, on January 5, 2016.
What I’m Reading
What Writers Know About Paying Attention (Stephanie Smith): I recently stumbled across the Slant Letter newsletter from Stephanie Smith, an editor at Zondervan, and I loved what she had to say this week about reading well: “Every novel, every narrative, every thesis or thinkpiece, all of these churn together like coffee grounds and kitchen scraps in the same compost pile. And slowly, with patient turning and over time, a nutrient-rich soil is created. If your sources are good, your soil will be good, and any seeds that are planted in it will absorb their richness and health. The reverse is also true: if your sources are lacking or anemic, chances are you won’t germinate that brilliant idea you were hoping to hatch.”
The 24 Best Longform Food Stories of 2016 (Eater): Well, look-ee here. Some great writing to read!
The Sixteen Most-Read New Yorker Stories of 2016 (The New Yorker): And some more.
The Most Popular Food News of 2016 (The New York Times): One last serving of good reads. (That Per Se review really was killer.)
A Literary Agent’s Guide to Publishing Terms Authors Should Know (Mark Gottlieb for The Write Life): If you’ve ever wondered what “D&A” means, this is the year to get your publishing jargon down pat.
What We’re Eating
We had good intentions. Good resolutions. Good plans. In fact, my health resolution this year was to cook vegetables in bulk and cram myself right full of them. But then we got home late from the cabin we rented for New Year’s, and our Peapod order was delayed, and we had nothing fresh in the fridge. Here is a true accounting of what happened from there:
Wednesday: Takeout, wine, friends at our house
Thursday: Finally back on track! A shrimp greek salad. Dinner of the resolution gods.
Friday: White Chicken Chili. I became obsessed with white chicken chili after having a dynamite bowl of it last week at a volunteer event. Luckily, my authors have a few knockout recipes: I’m trying Robyn’s white chicken chili recipe this week and Jenn’s recipe after that. 2017: the year of bathing in white chicken chili.