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Read to write better

Reading extensively is key to becoming a better writer

I wasn’t one of those children who was taught to read at two or three. Aged five, I still struggled to make any sense of a "Peter and Jane" book that my classmates all seemed to understand. I vividly remember trying to read a sentence to my teacher and being totally baffled by the word ‘and’.

But once I eventually did learn to read, I took to it quickly, almost certainly obsessively, understanding that books meant happiness, escapism, friendship and knowledge. It’s a love that has never waned.

As a child, weekly school visits to libraries saw me hurrying around the shelves, picking up as many books as I was allowed to check out, willing the number to increase by next week because there was so much I wanted and needed to read.

In my early teens, I spent most of my free time zipping through Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Ngaio March and Dorothy L Sayers before falling in love with Thomas Hardy, Henry James, George Elliot and the Brontës.

At university I read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev; Hemingway and Fitzgerald; Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf, and because anxiety prevented me from using my busy university library I spent most of my student grant in quiet bookshops.

When I lived in the States in my early twenties, I finally discovered contemporary writers in bookshops that - shockingly, thrillingly, wondrously - stayed opened 24/7. Pacing the aisles for hours, I'd scan blurbs and first pages, eye up covers (different back then to UK ones) and calculate how many I could fit into my backpack when I returned to England.

Reading means I can open a page and be transported to any country in the world. I can spend time with wallflowers, hedonists, detectives and romantics. I can climb inside the mind of angsty neurotics, the misunderstood, the dastardly, the lost and those I want to save. Books shock, tease, amuse and move me. They transport me to the future and back to the past. They say, ‘You are not alone.’

Each of these things is a priceless gift for anyone but doubly so if you’re a writer. Reading well-written books helps you to understand how to write well yourself. It expands your vocabulary, lets you understand how to write a good first-person narrative, how to plot a great murder mystery, how to write a romantic hero and a diabolical despot. It shows you how to connect with a reader, write witty dialogue or meticulously plan a farce. How to create a perfect setting or deliver a shocking twist. How to use language to create something unique.

To improve as a writer, read extensively and haphazardly. Dip into different genres, periods, styles and tones. See what connects with you as a reader. Discover what you think doesn’t work. Be inspired by each book you read.

Every writing lesson is out there, in libraries, charity shops and bookshops.


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