Today I have the distinct pleasure to feature a guest post by Maria Rainier, who took my simple idea and turned it into the excellent string of words you’ll read below.
Can you learn how to skateboard by reading the manual that comes with your helmet? Can you become a yoga master by watching instructional YouTube videos? Can you become a lumberjack by appreciating paper? Can you—never mind. You get the point.
You can’t write well without writing at all. Writing, however, is one of those rare skills that you can hone—and hone extremely well—by observing its product, by reading.
When you read frequently and mindfully, you improve your grasp on language. You learn that there is no “a” in “definitely” and you start to use “their,” “there,” and “they’re” accurately even in Facebook where, apparently, proper English doesn’t translate. With more words, styles, and turns of phrase at your disposal, you can more easily think of unique ways of saying what you want to say. This makes you memorable; it gives you a voice.
You also learn that despite what your stuffy high school English teacher said in those hours-long lessons on grammar in that chalk-dusted room, accomplished writers break the rules of proper language etiquette all the time. They write ridiculously long sentences like the one I just wrote. They write short ones. And they start sentences with “Or,” “But,” and “And.” Although your writing needs to remain intelligible, breaking these very rules artfully actually gives you voice.
Here’s what you do (noting that this is not an overnight project):
- Go to the library or used bookstore and pick up a couple of books by different respected authors in your chosen genre. Try to discern a voice in each book by each author. Analyze this voice. Why did the author choose to write this way or from this perspective? Does the voice change? What does it add to the story? What does it do to the story to make it different from the others you’re reading?
- Next, go back to the library or store and pick up a few more books by one author in your chosen genre. Does the author give each story a different voice? Is it the same voice? What does the voice add to the story and could the story have gained or lost something by telling it through another voice?
- Next, return to your book haven and pick up books from an aisle of another genre. Variety is the spice of life, to quote my (and everyone else’s) mother. Find out what gives these authors a voice in their genre. Reading the newspaper will rarely give you hints on how to reach that pitch you can call your own, but it will certainly teach you to simplify your sentences. Reading Charles Dickens may not help you create snappy images when you believe a description of someone’s overcoat shouldn’t reach more than 30 words (never mind 30 paragraphs), but Charles will teach you to diversify your language. Reading the latest bestselling thriller when you want to be the next Pulitzer Prize winner may make you want to tear your eyes out, but you get to glimpse at what the masses read. You can’t win a prize unless someone reads your work, right?
Bio: Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education where she writes about education, online universities, and what an online degree means in an increasingly technological world. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.