Great Writers Are Also Readers

writer's office

Probably the home of a great writer…

“If you don’t have awareness and an analytical understanding of what worked before, you can’t build on it.”

That’s something Seth Godin wrote in a blog post while talking about business leaders, but it also applies to travel writers and anyone else doing creative work. You can bet that whoever is in the running for a sports championship is watching every move on the field from his/her competitor. Great actors have watched more great movies than you or I have.

For writers, painters, and musicians, it goes deeper than that. Picasso learned to do well in every style before he obliterated them all and created a whole new one. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin listened to stacks of old blues albums (and learned to play the songs) before they filled up stadiums with their own sound. There’s a great section of The Week magazine where current book authors point to eight books they think people should read, things that they learned from, books that inspired them to create their own bestsellers.

Whether you’re writing about food, politics, business, or travel, you need the kind of maturity that can only be gained through two things: lots of reading and lots of writing. The latter is important because it’s hard to improve and gain confidence without a whole lot of practice. Practice without guidance, however, can just lead to reinforcement of bad habits. (Ask any self-taught golfer or piano player.)

Great Writers are Regular Readers

The people I know who regularly win travel writing awards are also some of the most voracious readers of books.

I read 14 books last year, slightly better than what I consider to be a minimum in my life: one per month. When I’m reading less I can feel the quality of my writing suffer. Quality in, quality out. Nothing in, less good comes out. If I’m writing a long narrative and it feels kind of flat, the best thing I can do is stop, go read somewhat great for an hour, then come back to it.

There are a 100+ great travel writers out there you can use for this purpose, plus the thousands of great novels that make travel part of the story. But you can’t lose with the tried and true: Graham Greene, Paul Thereoux, Redmond O’Hanlon, Tim Cahill, Sarah Wheeler, Eric Newby, Pico Iyer, Colin Thubron, Bruce Chatwin, Peter Matthiessen, Jonathan Raban, Jan Morris, Dervla Murphy, V.S. Naipaul…

So many times I have to bite my tongue when talking to travel writers who just aren’t as good as they should be at this point in their career. In a recent conversation with one I mentioned that I only buy the airline Wi-Fi if I’m on deadline for something because that’s a good time to read with no interruptions. “I always get it,” she said, “so I can get all my social media work done.”

Another told me he can’t read on a bus or train because of motion sickness, so I asked him what he did before bed each night when there was no motion. “Mostly Facebook and Instagram,” he said.

There are so many things wrong with that answer, from blue light to brain activity to the additional stress before bedtime. Put the phone in another room to charge and pull out a book. Your brain and body will both be better off.

So many times I hear writers say, “I wish I had more time to read” or “I’ve had the same book on my nightstand for six months.” They clearly need my Productivity Power for Writers course.

If you’re not reading what others have written on a regular basis—and not just stupid listicles and “What to do in Barcelona” articles, then you’re just not going to get better. Your output will be average because you’re reading like an average person, not a writer.

Reading More is Cheap

Thankfully you have more writing teachers at your fingertips every day than could ever be imagined just a few decades ago. Classic books are available for free for your Kindle without you even dragging your lazy butt to the library. If you have Amazon Prime you can get something new every month that’s contemporary.

People are selling physical books for cheap at yard sales, at your local thrift store, or at used book stores. There are book outlet stores all over the place selling overstocks for cheap—often excellent books they just printed too many of. Plus with your Amazon wish list, you can keep track of what you want to read and help relatives figure out what to get you for a gift.

You can also find used copies of almost anything online, even if the book is out of print. Plus when you compare the cost of a book to an online course or a university class, a book is one of the world’s greatest bargains.

If you’re a freelancer or blogger, you also should be working on your craft by reading magazines, either in print or online. You can subscribe to most print magazines now for a buck an issue or less. (Or get them with leftover airlines miles and keep your account active.) And again, if you have Amazon Prime, you can get some magazines on a tablet for nothing.

Well-written stories are always just a mouse click away too, on serious magazine sites, great online magazines, and on podcasts that can teach you great storytelling techniques. If you want to learn how to tell good stories succinctly, back to Seth Godin again to put a bracket on this post. Every episode starts with an interesting story and you can listen to the whole thing during a 20-minute walk or workout.

Reading doesn’t have to be with your eyes all the time, and great movies or TV shows can teach you a lot about narrative, character, and description. But if you’re not reading books from great authors, including some great travel authors now and then, you’re probably only going to get to good, not great.

If you want to up your game, learn from those who are already knocking it out of the ballpark. Read, digest, and learn.


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