Want to Be a Good Writer? Read Widely. Read Wisely. Read These Books.

Will Newman

Books have been a big part of our discussion this week. So, inspired by our discussions and an email from Circle of Success member Myla, I’m going to tell you my two favorite books.

I’ll start our discussion, though, with the two absolutely most essential secrets to becoming a writer.

First: You must write. Every day. (More about this in another visit very soon.)

Second: You must read. Every day.

You might think that to become a writer and live the writer’s life you should read books on how to write. This is only partly true. You may learn about writing … but what are you going to write about?

So if you truly want to be a writer, you must read from many genres and many sources.

Today, then, I’m not going to tell you my favorite writing books. I’ll do that later on. No, today we’re going to look at my two favorite fiction books.

Bleak, desolate, and inspiring

Good, effective writing is clear and easy to understand … on the surface. Complex ideas shine through more clearly when writers use words you can readily understand. Mark Ford calls this “simplicity of diction.”

But many would-be-writers feel if people are going to take them seriously, they have to write with big words, using long, complex sentences.

My favorite fiction book gives the lie to this misconception. The Road by Cormack McCarthy describes a bleak, desolate world traveled by “the man” and “the boy.” His simple words detail the eternal battle between good and evil so that we’re left with a faint glimmer of hope.

Simple words. Simple sentences. Easy to read. The Road is far from simple. Magnificently crafted, it won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

The Road is a textbook on how simplicity of diction can carry complex ideas.

Learning from Young Adult literature

A 5th grader could understand the words in The Road, but you’d never want to hand it to a 5th grader.

That said, many books written for 5th through 9th graders are remarkably well written and provide prime examples of compelling writing.

Think about it. If your reader is 11 years old, you have to grab her attention on the first page or she won’t keep reading. The ideas must be compelling and written in language that captures the reader’s imagination.

Any type of writing — fiction, nonfiction, even copywriting — must do exactly these things to succeed.

So my second favorite book is from young adult literature.

I know you’ve heard what I call the 1st commandment of writing: Show, don’t tell. You couldn’t find a better example of this than The Giver by Lois Lowry.

I’m not going to spoil the book for you (and I do hope you read it) by giving any details. But a very crucial aspect of the story isn’t revealed specifically for the first half of the book. But the reader senses something’s amiss very early on.

By showing, not telling, Lowry captures the reader’s commitment to her story. Show … don’t tell makes this book a masterpiece for readers of any age.

But please do not read The Giver or The Road for any writing lessons you might find in them. Read them because they’re excellent books … with compelling themes.

Next week, Joshua Boswell is going to tell you how he went from yearning for the writer’s life to living it.

Until then, I’d love to hear about your favorite books and why they hold that place in your life. Or about anything you’d like to add today. Tell us by commenting below.

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Published: February 19, 2016

14 Responses to “Want to Be a Good Writer? Read Widely. Read Wisely. Read These Books.”

  1. I never thought to revisit my childhood favorites, but why not?! I love Roald Dahl so much - I may just have to pick up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach again! What a great idea - thanks!

    As an adult some of my favorites are The Alchemist by Paulo Cuelo, You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero, and What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey. I love the possibilities in The Alchemist. You Are a Badass makes me feel pumped! And What I Know For Sure is a sweet collection of short narratives and personal anecdotes by Oprah herself.

    Guest (Jeri )

  2. Haven't read those books. Saw the movie The Road. Depressing.
    I like the Travis McGee novels. I've read all of them at least 3 times. Straight forward writing with a lot of language of the day. South Florida in the 60's and 70's. Also the Foundation books by Asimov. What I like about his writing in this series is he doesn't get much into all the technical language. More about ideas about the individual and the group.

    Guest (Andrew)

  3. Thank you for this valuable information.
    Many years ago I many books, however in recent months I've picked up my passion once again.

    I enjoy Danielle Steel and I recent read 'Perfect Life' by such author and I throughly enjoy that book. In the past I read Jackie Collins who in my opinion was a brilliant author.

    Thanks again for valuable information. I am looking forward to reading more.

    Guest (Karen )

  4. Tom Robbins' books, especially Jitterbug Perfume always get my attention, with wonderful sentences like, "The sun was so round and glossy and black that had it a figure eight on it, well, it would have validated a lot of long-standing philosophical and theological complaints underlining once and for all just where we earthlings sit on the cosmic pool table." Also, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. Best. Opening. Line. Ever. "The circus arrives without warning."

    Charlotte W

  5. One of my all time favorite books is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Her writing is detailed but not boring, has well fleshed out characters and interesting scenes. It is fantasy, love, loss, violence and strength.

    Guest (Cheryl)

  6. For absolute fun, I read Nora Roberts and her alternate pen name JD Robb. As far as I'm concerned she is the master in fiction. I am going to read The Giver as I remember my kids reading it back in the day and I never got around to it then. I have always loved historical novels and now am into reading self development books. Books on advertising are going to be breaking my paradigm but I'll do anything to get to write!


  7. Thank you for this article. I liked it a lot. I love to read. If I could live in a library I would :-)I love to read Stephen King On Writing by Stephen King. I also loved reading The Complete Memoirs Of Jacques Casanova De Seingalt by Giacomo Casanova.


  8. I can't remember how long ago it was that I read Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" - I know it was before the movie came out - About five years ago I read it again and it was as poignant and as exciting as the first time I read it - A true classic still relevant today - And now she is gone, but her work is timeless.
    Another book I read that surprised me was "Holes" - Mainly, I read non-fiction but I think "Holes" tickled my inner child.

    Guest (Joy)

  9. I am reading " Gigi and the cat" by Colette. From hidden treasures,Moiliili community center thrift shop, Honolulu, Hawaii.

    Guest (Abigail Roll )

  10. Pat Conroy is first on my list He makes me homesick for places I've never been!

    Colleen H

  11. Please read, if you have not done so yet, LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, or any of the works of the late, great Gabriel Garcia Marquez.


  12. Yes, Will... My favorite book is Pritzker laureate Robert Venturi's "Learning From Las Vegas" which is basically a beautifully written architectural handbook per a tongue-in-cheek Pop classification on reducing building types to "Duck" OR "Decorated Shed" statuses for which SYMBOL and FUNCTION are respectively replete in BOTH our automobile AND pedestrian frameworks whence buildings are read.

    A crash course on urban planning if you will. Or ESPECIALLY if you don't. LOL.

    Guest (Chris Morris)

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