When you’re deep in the process of creating your own work, there comes a time when it will suit you far better to avoid any other writing influences and to focus solely on what you want to say and how you want to say it.
Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to be influenced by other people’s writing. This can happen in a number of ways. Maybe you read something so beautiful that you begin to doubt your own skill and ability and tell yourself you’re never going to live up to that; you read someone else’s writing on your topic who poo-poos your way of thinking and makes you doubt the strength of your premise; or maybe you’re simply reading bad writing, and the writer’s poor syntax leaks into your writing.
At the very least, cultivate discretion as to what you consume when you read. Avoid influences that won’t help you create your best work.
If you must read, choosing to read only good writing is a fabulous way to study the craft and to expand your own skill set. What you read must be of quality. Trust me when I say that what goes in will inevitably come out. If you read subpar material, you will start to write subpar material.
This was illustrated for me when I was editing a manuscript for a client whose writing was a little rough. He was a brand new writer and got most of his practice through his first attempt at his book. The editing work was difficult, so in my spare time I didn’t want to read for enjoyment; I felt like getting outside and away from a screen. When I wrote my next article, my sentence structure was choppy and rudimentary and I made novice mistakes. I noticed my writing reminded me of someone… and it turned out to be the author whose work I was editing.
You will absorb the stylistic choices and voices of the authors you read – and that’s natural. This is why you must make sure that you read a variety of quality material. I read only fiction books for years and years. While I ended up with a vivid imagination, I wasn’t able to write concisely or to the point. My mind wandered, and so would my words. It took me years of writing legal analyses before I learned to get to the point and explain it clearly.
Read well, and read widely. Don’t stick with one genre or field – pick out one of the classics you’ve always wanted to read, and sprinkle in helpings of non-fiction. Or pick up some poetry from Rumi or a non-secular poet – anything that will force you to look at the way words are strung together to illustrate a point, an image, an emotion, or an idea.
If you’d like suggestions, I have a few favorites for you to consider. Pick a few and pay attention to the style, tone of voice, and structure of the book. Notice the writing methods you’re attracted to, the techniques and phrases you love, and take them apart to see how they work.
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
- Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott
- Sum by David Eagleman
- Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey
- You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero
- The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
- The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
- Lexicon by Max Barry