On Writing

My favorite Stephen King quote.

If you don’t read, you can’t write

I can’t tell you how many times people have approached me at book signings and writing clinics and told me they want to write a book, have to write a book, they’re going to write a book! But I can tell you that in every one of those instances I’ve replied with, “That’s great. Now tell me, what are you reading?” All too often the responses have been a mix of blank stares and the following:

Nothing. I can’t recall the last time I read a book.

Who has the time?

I don’t have the patience for books. Do magazine articles count?

Right here and now, I’m going to tell you what I told those lovely people. If you don’t read, you can’t write. It’s that simple.

And no, magazine articles don’t count. A piece of fiction or memoir, excerpted from a book and placed in your favorite magazine is fine, great in fact. I hope you read it, love it, and run out to buy the book and devour it from cover to cover. But an article on planning for retirement? Choosing the right eye shadow? Which celebrity wore what wherever? Nope. None of those count. And, full disclosure? I’m a magazine editor and a full-blown magazine junkie. I love those glossy tomes and read them all, but not one copy of my beloved Real Simple will ever replace my passion for the pile of books by my bed.

Part of the reason people think they can write without reading is that a large majority of us have gotten it into our heads that if we write how we speak, it’s all good.

It’s not.

There isn’t an editor in the world who is ever going to publish phrases like, “If you’re wanting a great gift,” “The store is so popular, and they’ve only been open six months,” and the one that makes me the craziest, “We ate McDonalds.”

Really? You ate McDonalds and somehow David Muir missed it? Clearly you need a new publicist.

But of course, what you really need, particularly if you’re at a loss for what’s wrong with any of the aforementioned phrases, is to read a book.

And then another book.

And when you find a book you simply can’t put down, I beg you, read it two, three, five times in a row. Read it until the author’s voice impacts the words you speak, (please God, no more eating McDonalds), those you write and, most importantly, the way you write them. Don’t worry; you’re not “stealing” someone else’s style. You’re simply improving your own.

If you really want to write a book, read, reread, and read some more. If you don’t read, you can’t write. It’s that simple.

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