Friday, July 21, 2006

You Have To Read Before (and After) You Write

How does a writer learn to write? Of course, there are conferences and seminars, books and articles. All of these are good, and I've benefited from them all. But, as a retired physician, it seems to me that learning the craft of writing is quite similar to the learning process for a medical student.

You begin by listening to people who have knowledge of the subject. They categorize it and impart it to you in a systematic fashion. You read books and journal articles. But eventually, you have to see the disease process in action, by observing trained physicians as they interact with real patients. When you're ready, when you've had enough training, you try your hand (under supervision) at diagnosis and treatment. And eventually, you have enough experience to become one of the teachers, instead of one of the pupils. There's an aphorism in medicine--not necessarily true, but so close to the truth as to carry a real message: "See one, do one, teach one." More accurately, it's "see a hundred, do another hundred, spend the rest of your life continuing to learn and teach."

Now compare that with writing. The would-be writer absorbs all kinds of "how-to" knowledge from books. He sleeps with THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE under his pillow, brushes his teeth while reading PLOT AND STRUCTURE and GETTING INTO CHARACTER, and does his daily devotions out of TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER and SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS. And that's as it should be. If you haven't read (and re-read) these classics, you must.

In addition to that, you go to conferences: Mount Hermon, Glorieta, Blue Ridge--so many, and all have something to offer. You write, and you get critiqued. After that, you cry and sulk, then write some more, and yet again. Rejection follows rejection, but you're smart and you improve with every draft and every new project.

What's missing? Reading the works of successful writers. Not just those authors whose books are listed above, but those whose writing resonates with you. If a Christian author's book doesn't float your boat, move on to the works of another one. And remember that some of the best, most classic writing comes from the secular side, as well. I'd kill to be able to write like Robert B. Parker (well, not really, but he's one of my heroes). Like a surgeon who tries to do an appendectomy after reading it and practicing a time or two, without ever having seen a masterful surgeon perform one, you'll flounder if you aren't a reader, as well as a writer.

So, why are you reading this? Read something that matters. And then write.

2 comments:

JSB said...

Good advice, Doc. And you're living proof that it works!

Write on...

JSB said...

Good advice, Doc. And you're living proof that it works!

Write on...