Writing Tip 6: “Write a lot, and read a lot.”

Instead of getting blocked by my outstanding post on Outlines, here's another tip: Keep reading.

When I did my Ph.D., I used to think anything that did not push the dissertation forward was a case of Thesis Procrastination. Procrastination is many things, and it might be helpful, but my self-diagnosis was misguided. I was wrong because I included reading for pleasure in the list of what counted for procrastination.

In fact, throughout graduate school, my friends and I complained that we had stopped reading novels.

The quality of our writing suffered, as a result.

Writing Tip 6: “Write a lot, and read a lot.”

The advice is not mine; it is straight out of Stephen King’s On Writing. King call’s it “The Prime Rule.”

The first part of the rule should be obvious: To be a good writer, you have to write. The second part of the rule, read a lot, is as important.

What I didn’t understand in graduate school is: To be a good writer, you have to read good writers.

King writes:

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in … Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway.”

In graduate school, we learned to read with purpose. We learned to read to know the literature; to engage in arguments; to understand a theory; to be in dialogue with someone; to start a conversation; or to do our own work. It was work.

I read to go to class and discuss the readings; I read to teach classes; and I read to break down arguments and write essays. Today, I spend hours reading for work. I take lots of notes. Part of the work of a scholar is to read within a discipline. The problem? Academic writing is full of passive voice, adverbs, and, let's be honest, awkward turns of phrase.

For scholars, what matters are ideas and arguments. The writing—as writing—takes second place. I would wager, however, the best scholars are the ones who combine solid argumentation and solid writing. I think a consequence of reading just within a discipline, is that we internalize bad writing.

King’s antidote, reading widely, is worth a try. This means reading for pleasure, not work. It might be fiction, narrative non-fiction, memoir, or, in the case of what I do, certain forms of ethnographic writing. Every day, I try to take the time to read for no immediate purpose.

I read at night after I've stopped work for the day. A few weeks ago, I was reading John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce. Last week, I read Philip K. Dicks’s classic The Man in the High Castle and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. At the moment, I am enjoying Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.

Ursula K. Le Guin—who I discovered via her excellent Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew has a list of books that have changed her life. It's as good a place as any to start.

I don’t read to break those book's down or deconstruct them. I do it for fun, and to observe Stephen King’s Prime Rule: Read a lot.

One should never read instead of writing, but one should also never write instead of reading.