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Want to Be a Better Writer? Read This.

Railroad tracks reading a book
Go ahead, read a book. Maybe not on railroad tracks, though. Just saying.

I’ve talked to hundreds of best-selling authors about their early years, before they were published.

By and large, they wrote about half a dozen unpublished manuscripts before they sold their “first” novel.

Aside from cranking out thousands of pages of prose, how do you learn the writing skills you need to improve over time?

You must make time to read every day.

Read books about writing fiction.

Not sure where to start? Here are my personal recommendations of some of the best books for any aspiring novelist:

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them) by Jack Bickham
Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge
Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham
The Fiction Factory by John Milton Edwards
Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham

There are plenty more. But that’s a good start.

Read both good and bad books.

Read everything you can get your hands on, both good and bad.

Obviously, reading good writing will inspire you to write better.

But bad books can be just as educational. Reading bad, cheap, cheesy, overblown writing might just make you feel better about your own writing skills. Plus, it’s a quick way to learn what not to do.

Read inside your genre.

First: yes, you must pick a genre for each book you write. No, you don’t have to stick to the same genre for the rest of your life.

Read to see what other people are doing in your genre, and how they’re doing it. Pay attention to what works, and what doesn’t. See what’s popular and what isn’t. See what’s been done to death, and look for a way to do something fresh and new.

Read widely.

Don’t just stick to your favorite subjects. Take a walk through the library or bookstore and pick up anything that catches your eye. Read random magazines. Read a good newspaper, like the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. You never know what you’ll discover.

In the last 24 hours alone, I’ve read about:

• backpacking through a disaster area
• the law regarding cursed objects in medieval England
• how to convert a van into an RV
• using radar to map ancient Incan cities, and
• a guy chasing a car around LA because it had giant fiberglass chicken on the roof. I’m not making this up.

At least two of those things will end up in my next book. Maybe three. Overall, time spent reading is time well spent.

Soak up all the knowledge you can.

You never know when something you read today will come in handy for a story tomorrow. Every character, setting, and plot you write about has to come from somewhere. Your own personal experiences are only the starting point. You can multiply that many times over by reading avidly.

The hidden bonuses of reading:

Studies have shown that kids and adults who read fiction exhibit improved empathy and problem-solving skills.

Here’s another bonus: better sleep. The less time you spend watching a screen (especially at night), the quicker you’ll fall asleep. You’ll also enjoy a better quality of sleep. The trick is to read a paper book (or a Kindle Paperwhite), not a phone or tablet with a backlight.

So, if you can’t find anything good on Netflix tonight, just switch off the TV. Read a book. It will make you a better writer.

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