Becoming a Writer: Tip #1

December 15th, 2011

Since I’m feeling the holiday crunch (and have a deadline looming that I’m so not prepared for), I don’t have time for lots of long posts and figured I’d keep in touch with some daily (optimistic?  we’ll see) short writing tips, culled from the kinds of questions I get asked at readings and talks.

Here’s today’s:

What do I think is the best way to learn how to write?

An excellent question, Claire.

Thank you, Claire.

The best way to become a better writer is by reading good books.

When I was in college, I was already pretty sure I wanted to write, so I thought about being a creative writing major, which was an option–you take lots of writing classes and your senior year you write something original for your thesis.  It sounded like a good way to jumpstart a writing career.

Then I took a writing workshop class and hated it–there I was, stuck in a room with a bunch of other kids my age, reading each other’s mediocre, melodramatic teenage scribblings.  What was the point?  I didn’t see a lot of learning opportunity there.  Just a lot of backscratching.

So instead I became an English literature major and I’ve never regretted it.  I spent four years reading Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Defoe, Shakespeare, Richardson  . . . I could list a lot more but I’d have to get up and look at my bookshelves because I have no memory and there’s a dog sleeping on my lap and anyway I’m too lazy to get up right now.  You get the point, anyway.  Every book I read taught me that much more about what works, how to keep a story moving, how to create a character, how to write a well-crafted sentence . . .

To this day, I’m in awe of anyone who tells a good story, one that you can’t put down, or that can make you laugh out loud or bring tears to your eyes.  I admire authors who have clever ideas and unexpected plot twists and ones who write in clear, active sentences.  When I’m feeling at my most frustrated with my own writing–“Why isn’t this clearer?  Why does this part feel boring?  Why can’t I find a better way to say this?”–I pick out a favorite old book, something that’s kept me entranced through countless readings and I read it again and it’s like taking a quick class in How to Make A Book Good.  My favorites aren’t all by famous dead people, either–there are tons of authors writing today who are inspiring and whose books continue to teach me how to write better.

Read if you want to write.

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