The most important piece of advice I offer aspiring writers is to read widely in the genre in which you want to write. If you want to write novels, read novels. If you want to write poems, read poems. If you want to write travelogues, read travelogues. Read them as an apprentice, an idea Jack Rawlins describes in early editions of his book, The Writer’s Way. By “read like an apprentice,” I take Rawlins to mean reading with an eye toward noticing and figuring out
- How does the piece work? What holds it together? What moves it forward?
- What are the techniques and strategies the author uses?
- What are the effects of these techniques and strategies?
- How could I use these techniques and strategies in my own writing?
One way to understand deeply the techniques and strategies the author uses is to actually copy the piece, either by hand or by retyping it. Copying allows you to begin internalizing the word choices and sentence structures of the author. Fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock discusses this technique in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air (listen to the interview).
I like to take the apprenticeship idea a little further and have students do imitation exercises. After you’ve read something like an apprenticeship, choose a passage you particularly like and write an imitation of it. Here are instructions for writing an imitation.
It doesn’t matter which genre you want to write in–poetry, fiction, academic essays, whatever–reading like an apprentice, copying, and imitating can help you improve your writing.