Want to improve your writing? Do this one thing

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If we told you there was one simple thing you could do which would take your writing to the next level – and you already knew how to do it, it was enjoyable, and could often be done for free – would you believe us? It’s one of the top pieces of advice we get from authors to fellow authors: Read. Read widely, read closely, read thoughtfully, just get in there and read.

1. Nicole Hayes (left), the award-winning author of A Shadow's Breath, One True Thing and The Whole of My World, says she deliberately read widely to help improve her writing style when she was writing A Shadow’s Breath. 

“I was reading about different ways that we move, different ways that we look, different ways that people carry themselves,” she says. “I was sick of saying the same things, and aware that I had these patterns in my writing that I needed to break.”

2. Call Me Evie and In The Clearing author J.P. Pomare advises not just reading the books you want to write, but re-reading them too. 

“The second reading, I wasn’t even hoping to enjoy it, but I did,” he says. “I always do. But it was just for an eye for structure and just trying to unthread this big tangle of a story to find out why it works the way it does, and to understand the mechanics of plot and that sort of thing.”

“And it’s not as active as that. You can passively read for the second time and you’re going to notice things you didn’t notice the first time as well. If you’ve got a pen or pencil handy while you’re reading or re-reading, I always make sure that I am making notes of what works and why, and what perhaps didn’t have such a strong response from me, as well.”

3. Australian Writers’ Centre alumna Astrid Scholte, author of Four Dead Queens, advises reading mostly within your own genre, but also venturing into other genres to help you learn about structure.

“I also read crime, a little bit of contemporary, and mostly YA and YA fantasy,” she says. “But reading a lot, it really does teach you how to structure narrative and plot and story and characters. Just basically knowing the structure of a book and how things work.”

4. Julian Leatherdale, late author of Palace of Tears, The Opal Dragonfly and Death in the Ladies’ Goddess Club, said reading high-quality books helps you learn how to write.

“Read good writers. Learn your craft. Don’t turn in text that is badly punctuated or poorly structured. Agents are saying they’re seeing a bit too much of this. And there is a bare minimum you’ve got to reach to be recognised as a professional writer.”

5. International bestselling YA and middle grade fiction author Amie Kaufman (left) says you can’t just read what you write, you have to read widely

“Someone talked about the idea of creative compost,” she says. “That everything that you see and read and listen to and absorb falls to your mental forest floor, and what you write grows out of it. And if you only read the thing that you write, then you end up sounding like everybody else. Because you’re cooking with the same ingredients.

“But if you want to learn about how to write something scary, read horror. If you want to learn about relationships, read romance. Read, read, read all this stuff that is not your thing.”

6. Picture book author Kate Simpson, who wrote Finding Granny, Dear Grandpa and Anzac Girl: The war diaries of Alice Ross-King, says reading what’s current in your genre will help you understand what publishers are looking for

“I didn’t understand or know early on that picture books have a structure. They come in a set number of pages. Publishers can’t just publish a picture book of however many pages they like. You can publish 24 pages or you can publish 32 pages. Very occasionally, you might publish 48 pages. 

“Really, you need to stick with the conventions. If you go and say, I’m a genius, and my book breaks all the conventions, they’re going to say, thanks. See you later. You need to know these things, these expectations.”

7. Peter Rock, author of The Night Swimmers, said the students he teaches often have an overly narrow reading range because they only read books by the kind of writers they want to be. 

“As you get older and as you write more, you recognise that you can learn so much from writers who are unlike the kind of writing that you want to do.

“I learned so much from reading Alice Munro, and I don’t have a desire to write the kind of thing that she does. So I’d say just reading and reading widely and enjoying it. It reminds you why it is that you’re interested in telling stories.”

8. Melanie Cheng, author of Room For A Stranger and Australia Day, says going back and re-reading an old favourite can help you push through with your own writing. 

“When I’m getting stuck in a piece of work, the best thing I can do is go read my favourite author or a really inspiring work, and that kind of re energises me and reinvigorates me to come back to the manuscript.”

9. Authors writing for children should make sure to still read adult books, says Jaclyn Moriarty, bestselling author of novels for young adults and adults including Feeling Sorry For Celia and The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone.

“Reading literary books to remind yourself of all the possibilities that are out there, at the same time as reading kids books, if you’re writing a kid’s book, I think is important,” she says. 

“Because you should never be writing down to children. So be aware all the time of what great writing is. And I don’t mean that literary writing is the only great writing, because there are wonderful children’s books that are just as good as literary books.”

10. Lian Hearn (left) is one of Australia’s most internationally successful writers, and has written books including Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass for His Pillow and The Tengu's Game of Go. Reading books you love helps inspire you to write all over again, she says. 

“The books that I read as a child, which I fell so totally in love with – I have always had a dream to be able to write books like that, that readers will love,” she says. “Many writers say that, that it’s that thrill of kind of carrying on the torch, and then passing it on to other people. That is one of the great things about being a writer.”

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