Make Your Editor Cry: A Bit of Good Advice

Make Your Editor Cry:  A Bit of Good Advice

A lot of so-called experts offer writers a lot of questionable advice. I remember not too long ago, the prominent advice at writers conferences was to get rid of ALL the dialogue tags. The next year, I could never tell which character was saying what! But that advice wasn’t terrible advice. It was just really bad advice. Incomplete advice, maybe.

By far the worst advice I have ever heard is something like this.

If you want to be a GREAT writer, you have to be a GREAT reader.

You read that correctly. That is the worst advice I have ever heard–by far.

Obviously, many disagree with me. Some of you reading this may have already stopped reading because you instantly discounted what I am about to say out of hand. Maybe don’t do that.

There are a number of verses (2 Peter 3:5, Job 21:14, Zechariah 7:11-12, Matthew 13:15, Romans 1:28, Matthew 11:20-24) that speak of being “willingly ignorant” as in “stupid on purpose” or “foolish by choice” of either knowledge or wisdom (or both). Given a choice, I try to consume knowledge and wisdom. Hear me out and see if you find either knowledge or wisdom in my words, then maybe make a choice to eat the meat and spit out the bones.

I hate to always be the guy in the jester costume amid the cheering throng that actually tells the emperor he’s buck naked, but that seems to be my role. Stephen King went so far as to say if you don’t read constantly you have no business writing at all. With all due respect to Mr. King and those who believe this advice to be true, his advice is absent logic. Hereinafter comes the logic.

Imagine an Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps or Mark Spitz. Like writing, swimming is hard, solitary, and yet somehow rewarding work.

To win, these Olympic athletes swim. They swim a lot. That constant swimming results in gold medal performances when they compete.

These men weren’t born with the ability to swim like fish. At some point in their lives, they didn’t even know how to float, much less how to swim well enough to win medals. In their youths, one or more really good and experienced swimmers coached them and taught them how to swim. Then they swam. Maybe they just dog-paddled at first. Eventually, they learned more advanced skills and techniques, and they practiced those swimming skills as perfectly as possible to become better swimmers.

Imagine, nearly every day of their lives they swam for hours on end. Sure, they took on a healthy diet with monk-like discipline. They developed and followed a combination exercise/stretching regimen on dry land to enhance their abilities in the water. They employed a number of tools like Speedos, goggles, earplugs, and all kinds of other tools designed to help swimmers swim more effectively. They depilated their body hair with creams and hot wax and razors to streamline their bodies. It is even conceivable that they watched videos of other really good swimmers swimming to glean some techniques.

But mostly, day after day, week after week, month after month, they got into a pool of water and they swam and swam and swam–for hours.

Okay, now for the logic. It is extremely unlikely that either swim champion would attribute his success to–watching other swimmers swim.

While watching other swimmers may have contributed to helping them personally master a handful of particular techniques, the lion’s share of their success is the result of just getting in the water and swimming. The fact that these men swam in a very disciplined way day after day without fail is much more relevant to their expertise at swimming than their gear, their coaching staff, or even their diet and dry land exercise program. I suspect watching other swimmers swim would lie far, far down the list of activities that contributed to their success.

Our logical conclusion then: The most important thing for a great swimmer is – swimming.

Really, nothing could be more obvious. The most important thing any great athlete can do to improve in his or her sport is to actually participate in that sport.

So here is a logical, if somewhat metaphorical, conceptual conclusion: The most important thing for a great writer is – WRITING.

Dare I disagree with the experts? Maybe even some of you reading this article? Well, yes. Yes I do. I disagree.

Logically speaking–just as if one swims a lot one then one can become a better SWIMMER–a more correct conclusion might be if one reads a lot then one can become a better – READER. Not a better writer.

As logical and cogent and, dare I say, completely obvious as the above syllogism may be, it is not what is often taught or stridently proclaimed to writers by the so-called experts. I have seen a repeating trend in recent years to put forward a different and somewhat fallacious hypothesis. The accepted guiding principle is that the most important thing for a great writer is not writing, but rather reading. This is preached to the masses as if it is a foregone conclusion, and you must be absent all your senses to think otherwise, or to have the sheer temerity to disagree.

In some other reality, I suppose it would be a wonderful thing if one could simply learn the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation then sit down and work for a few weeks to produce the great American novel. But I live in the real world. Obviously, there is much, much more to it. Writing well is more than just skill, or even talent. There is a creativity that pours out in the form of written language, and that creativity comes directly from the human soul. It’s hard, solitary, and yet somehow rewarding work.

But at the end of the day it is writing.

It isn’t reading.

If I were to quickly jot a prioritized top 10 list for writers, it would look like this:

  1. Write every single working day.
  2. Set small, achievable writing goals and achieve them (by writing).
  3. Don’t be lazy; just write.
  4. Stay focused! Distraction is the enemy of all great art. Focus on writing.
  5. Stop worrying about being a good writer; just write.
  6. Forget about fame. Write what’s worth writing.
  7. Let go of perfectionist tendencies. Forgive yourself of small mistakes. Just write.
  8. Don’t write to get published; just write.
  9. Write with conviction.
  10. Read.

Yes, reading makes the list, but dead last. The first nine have to do with just getting up every day and biting the nail.

Of course you would rather read a really good book than write one. Obviously. So would your readers. Writing is hard. Reading is easy.

However, is constantly watching others swim the most important thing for a swimmer? While it may help to some small degree the logical answer is, no, not really. I’m not even sure it would make that top ten list.

Likewise, does constantly reading make one a better writer? If we’re honest, we have to answer, no. No it does not, and will not, and cannot. Not really.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with reading. Just as there’s nothing wrong with a healthy diet, or exercise, or getting a good night’s sleep. There’s nothing wrong with expert coaching. There’s nothing wrong with using state-of-the-art tools to perform more efficiently. But a good night’s sleep isn’t number one. A great coach isn’t number one. Buying and learning how to use Scrivener isn’t number one. All of it helps. But the fact remains that the main and most important thing you can do to as a writer to improve in your craft is to actually write.

The temptation is to put the emphasis on things other than writing. Because, you know, writing is actually hard work. Maybe, instead of actually writing during those precious productive hours each working day, you would rather invest your time doing research (aka: spending the day posting and commenting), or “refining” your outline, or searching for pictures of what your characters look like on Pinterest, or making a draft of your idea for the book’s cover, or catching up on emails.

Or reading.

There is nothing wrong with doing any of those things, but they are not at the top of the list, and they are not what makes anyone a better writer. Confront that, and own up to that, and you will know that the truth I have verbalized here rings like a bell, even if you hate hearing that pealing truthful sound.

Keeping to a very strict and very disciplined schedule, properly prioritizing your tasks, and actually writing when it’s time to write has to take priority over everything else. My apologies to Mr. King et al. The only thing that can make you a better writer is writing. A lot. Every day, even. Not reading.

So here’s my bit of good advice. Let this be the last thing you read today. The rest of the day, get busy writing.

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2 thoughts on “Make Your Editor Cry: A Bit of Good Advice

  1. I critique a lot of beginning writers, and I very often tell them they need to read, and read a lot. But I don’t just tell them to read randomly. I tell them specific things to look for as they read–elements missing or poorly done in their own writing. For example, far too many writers try to make conversations sound like they sound in real life. “And then, um, do you think . . . well, look at it this way. Never mind, someone’s calling on the other line. I’ll talk to you later. Goodbye.” So I tell them to read a few books and pay special attention to dialogue and then start practicing writing it themselves. A person who has never read poetry is almost certainly not ready to write it. If you haven’t read children’s books, your attempts to write them will probably be failures.

    Although it is true that reading well won’t make you a good writer, good writers nearly always are good readers. And I can tell a writer who knows little to nothing about what makes a book into a book, so I send such a writer back to the basics: Read in the field in which you wish to write and see what such a book looks like.

    It’s all well and good to tell people to write more–but that advice is best given to someone who has already met the prerequisite of reading a lot. Telling a person who has never read a book that writing will make him a better writer is setting him off to practice in the wrong way. The swimmer needs to swim–but he needs to practice the RIGHT stroke or his practice is going to do more harm than good. A piano teacher will tell you that sometimes it does more harm than good for a student to practice a lot–because practicing a bad habit makes it worse. Most great writers were avid readers in childhood. Adults who skipped that background may need to go back and read a bit before they’re actually ready to write.

    1. Hi Cheryl,
      Like I said in the article, “Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with reading. Just as there’s nothing wrong with a healthy diet, or exercise, or getting a good night’s sleep. There’s nothing wrong with expert coaching. There’s nothing wrong with using state-of-the-art tools to perform more efficiently. But a good night’s sleep isn’t number one. A great coach isn’t number one. Buying and learning how to use Scrivener isn’t number one. All of it helps. But the fact remains that the main and most important thing you can do to as a writer to improve in your craft is to actually write.”
      I never said writers shouldn’t read. I put reading in my top ten list, even. I also never said someone who has never read a book should try to write. My contention is that the stress on and importance of reading to write is disproportionate to that of writing to write. At the end of the day, reading doesn’t get a book written. Writing does.
      -GB

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