[originally published at amwriting.org, here, in June of 2011]
Here’s a secret writers need to learn in order to master their craft: Writers need to learn to read. They don’t need to consume all the books on the New York Times best sellers list just to see which kind of monster is producing the most sales. Writers need to learn to read differently from readers. Writers need to understand that reading is part of practicing.
Part of my job as a high school English teacher consists of teaching students to become better readers by teaching them to identify the purpose of their reading. Are they reading for pleasure? Are they seeking information? Are they analyzing an argument in order to be persuaded or to refute the author’s position? Good readers can do these things. And that’s enough.
But it’s not enough for writers. Writers are artists, and artists need to be able to examine the works of their peers and betters in a different way.
Consider, as an analogy, film. When one of my sixteen-year-old students goes to see the newest big Hollywood blockbuster at the Cineplex this summer, he is satisfied by the experience. As a viewer, he was looking for entertainment, and the movie delivered. Done and done. Now, the cinephile goes to the movie theater and watches the same film (not anything high-brow, but something competently-made) and is also entertained. But she thinks about the structure of the story, the characters, the setting, the themes: She is, in short, a reader of film as text, and because she can do all the things we try to teach good readers to do when they pick up a novel, she gets a lot more out of the movie. She does not, however, come out of the theater talking about the tracking and handy-cam shots, diegetic and non-diegetic sound, side lighting and back lighting, fast cuts and slow fades. These were the techniques that gave the movie its punch and made it satisfying, but they aren’t her business.
These techniques are the business of the movie critic. The critic studied film back in college. She can not only tell you that The Conversation is her favorite Francis Ford Coppola movie, but she can explain why in great detail. She watches movies for a purpose, but it’s not to be entertained or to be informed or to be persuaded. At least, those aren’t enough. She watches movies because it’s her business, her livelihood, to evaluate them based on her vast knowledge of the way they are made, as well as what they make her think and how they make her feel.
And then there’s the film director. He watches movies differently than the casual viewer, the cinephile, and the critic. He watches to learn. For him, watching movies is part of his artistic education. It’s practice.
Writers need to do the same thing. When we pick up a novel, we can remember why we fell in love with books when we were young. We can enjoy being transported to new places, getting to know new people, and absorbing new ideas. We can even evaluate the works in the same way critics do. But we cannot afford to stop there. We need to read differently. For us, every choice of simple or complex vocabulary, every choice about following the basic rules or breaking them, every choice about revealing the minutia about a character or hiding it serves as a lesson which will make us better writers. This is because we recognize all these things for what they are: Choices. Choices made by writers. Writers just like us, only better. Admitting that last part is absolutely essential to becoming better writers ourselves. As long as we hold fast to the same choices we’ve always made, believing we are God’s gift to our readers, then not only is our writing a waste of time, but our reading is, too. Arrogant writers aren’t just obnoxious; they’re missing out on vital time to practice.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, talks about a group of psychologists who studied violin students in Germany. They divided the students up into three groups based on ability as determined by their teachers, then tried to figure out what made the great ones great and the mediocre ones mediocre. What they found was that the great ones practiced more. Not just a little bit. A lot more. In fact, they found a magic number necessary to become a virtuoso: 10,000 hours of practice. At a good clip, that takes ten years. They also didn’t find too much deviation from that. None of the virtuosos got by with very little practice, and none of the mediocre violinists practiced for 10,000 hours and remained mediocre.
Then, the psychologist began looking into other fields, and they found that the same magic number held up in every endeavor they examined. 10,000 hours. Athletes. Computer programmers. Ballerinas. Composers. And yes, writers.
The quality of those hours matters as much as the quantity, and that’s why writers need to change the way they read; it’s the difference between 10,000 hours of entertainment versus 10,000 hours of practice. One of Gladwell’s examples of 10,000 hours is the early Beatles before the British Invasion, when they were just a struggling rock band trying to find gigs. They worked in strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany and would often play for eight hours straight to non-English speaking audiences and compete for attention with the strippers. Not only did this give them a chance to compose songs that are probably on your iPod right now, but they also had to learn dozens, probably hundreds of covers, and not just of rock and roll songs but of Jazz standards and other genres. What Gladwell doesn’t discuss is the influence of the music Lennon and McCartney were listening to, both before the Beatles formed and during this time. I would bet good money that these guys were not only reading the crowds to see what was working, but they were also listening carefully to the music on the radio and on the albums they bought, and listening in a different way than you or me. They were reading the music to become better musicians.
My preferred example (as a die-hard NBA fan), would be a basketball player. If a basketball player practices his shot for 10,000 hours, he will get to the point where he can sink his free-throws a very high percentage of the time, he’ll know where he can hit the highest percentage of three-pointers, and he’ll make some very tricky moves under the hoop on a drive. And he will lose. Why? Because he didn’t spend some of that time reading the scouting report about, and watching tape of, his prospective opponents. His 10,000 hours were spent becoming an oddity, a guy who could mop the floor with you at HORSE, and in its own way that is becoming a virtuoso. But he won’t be a great basketball player, because he didn’t learn to read his opponents.
Sure, the analogy is imperfect. Writing is at once less collaborative (despite great writing communities like #amwriting, we do our work in isolation), and less competitive (we don’t go head-to head with another author or team of authors. It’s not a zero sum game. More good books can generate more readers.) Maybe we’re less like players watching tapes of their opponents to learn to beat them and more like players watching the greats to learn from them.
So pick up a copy of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and learn from her choice to write the book not only in first person, but in the present tense. Crack open Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and learn from his choice to eschew dialogue tags and conventional punctuation, then follow up with All the Pretty Horses or No Country for Old Men to reassure yourself that it’s not a fluke that just happens to work brilliantly but a conscious and careful choice he’s not always bound by. Read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and learn how a premise that seems doomed to be saccharine and trite becomes beautiful and powerful because of careful choices of characterization and intentional withholding.
Then go grab that guilty pleasure book on your nightstand. You know you have one. This is the huge hit by that debut novelist that fills you with rage when you read about the sales figures, and you grouse about it so publicly and with such vehemence that you can’t possibly admit how much you enjoyed the book yourself. Now, when you are flying through that weak prose, that thin characterization, or that awful adverb-filled dialogue attribution that makes you want to throw the book at the wall, stop and figure out why you don’t. Sure, it’s fine to identify the things you don’t like about the book. Note those choices so you will make different ones. But also acknowledge that there’s a reason that book is in your hands, and other copies are in a lot of other hands at the same time.
If you’re willing to do that, to learn from your betters (and yes, that hack on the New York Times best sellers list is your better, at least in some way) , then reading becomes part of your practice time, part of the 10,000 hours you need to rack up in order to become a true master of the art. Writing is practicing your shot. Reading is watching tape. You must do both to be great.