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There’s only one way to be a good writer

June 13, 2013


And that is: to be a good reader.

Over the years, I’ve coached a lot of people on their writing. I’m sure some of them would describe it more as ‘kicking their arse about obscure points of grammar and sentence structure’ – but you get the idea.

I’m comfortable in saying I’m a good writer. I’m a long way off saying I’m a great writer.

Let me tell you about great writers. Sometimes I pick up a copy of The New Yorker (sent all the way from NYC by my good friend Gigi). Its long-form journalism is so brilliant  it almost makes my eyes water. It balances painstaking research with masterful structure; it reveals and withholds details in such perfect order; it creates sympathy and raises ire in perfect measure. I want to be those writers.

Then I pick up The Monthly, which is really the closest thing Australia has to the New Yorker. Some of the nation’s best writers pen columns – often less than a thousand words – and they are brilliant. They capture a topic, a moment, a theme, with an almost magical brevity.

If you only ever read daily news journalism, you’d miss out on the impressive wrangling of language and narrative,  characterised by these types of publications. Together with literary journals like Meanjin, they occupy an important place between fiction and the news of the day.

But some aspiring writers aren’t even reading the news of the day. I have lost count of the number of people who tell me they want to improve their writing, and yet fail to open the newspaper on a daily basis. They want to do a ‘writing course’.

I have a course for you: it’s called

It doesn’t matter if you want to write a media release or an epic novel: you have to read other people’s work. It’s only by reading widely that you absorb the vast vocabulary available to you; that you find out the pace and rhythm of words that appeals to you; that you learn by osmosis what good writing sounds, feels and tastes like.

And in a professional sense, you need a lot of background and contextual information to write knowledgeably on a topic. People who see me lingering with the Financial Review every morning, may think it isn’t real work. But when you need to write a column on asset allocation, on behalf of a funds management expert, then you need a basic level of knowledge to translate their language – and to run it through the bullshit meter.

It is absolutely crystal clear to me when someone has tried to write on a topic they don’t understand. The concepts and logic become jumbled; the language is murky and imprecise. The writer takes their reader along on a journey of confusion and consternation.

So if you want to write well, you need to spend time reading first.

I’ve spoken before about the value of reading the classics, and I restate that here. The nineteenth century, in particular, was an important time, when a  formal and flowery use of English became slightly more relaxed yet still very correct. (That’s why reading David Copperfield is way more fun than reading Tristram Shandy. In my view, anyway). So the best Victorian-era writers give us an important lesson on structure and form, while still being accessible and entertaining. You don’t need to copy them, but you can learn from them.

And then the early 20th century’s best writers brought a new and modern feel to language. Read Hemingway, and you’ll feel bad about every superfluous word and wayward adjective you have ever written.

Really, I could go on forever listing books and authors, and exhorting you to discover George Eliot et al.

But don’t overthink it. Just turn off the TV, close Facebook and pick up something decent to read.

photo credit: dhammza via photopin cc


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  1. Alexis Carroll (@AlexisCarroll) permalink

    Being one of the people who has had my ”arse kicked” about apostrophes (and many other things) by you for the last two and half years, I agree! Joining the book club and making an effort to read a few well written articles a day has improved my writing. As well as a lot of patience and guidance from yourself, Melanie Gandevia and Kaley Payne 🙂

  2. Thanks Lek! Glad to have some actual evidence for my proposition.

  3. Melanie Gandevia permalink

    I completely agree as well B! You encouraged me to read more again and it definitely had an impact on my writing 🙂

  4. Nathan permalink

    I’m to scared to comment, incase I make a mistake. 🙂

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