Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well have always been the tools to live by if you claimed to be a writer. Although I have no argument with these classics, nobody put the art of writing into perspective better than did Stephen King in his best book (my opinion), On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
King finished this go-to book after barely surviving a head-on crash with a van, then undergoing five surgeries in 10 days for multiple fractures, a collapsed lung and broken hip.
I survived a similar accident, being hit twice on the same day by the same car in my small South Texas neighborhood in miraculously better shape, when I was 13. It was also the very same summer I learned the golden rule of writing anything that has served me well to this day, particularly over my last decade as a writing professional.
By the time On Writing was published in 2000, I’d been a full-time professional content writer for some 15 years, and wondered what tricks Uncle Stevie could teach me that I didn’t already know. The short answer: More than I imagined.
For me, King’s book was akin to the pep talks I always wanted to have with trusted colleagues about improving my craft but never had the time to sit still for them, apart from quick grammar notes, unless I completely missed the mark on occasion and needed to rewrite (not a bad thing).
My colleagues and I were too focused on chasing down the next stories about the next big thing in our industry/news/sports/content/culture queues that we forgot how important it was — and still is — for our writing to reach out to larger audiences.
King reminded me of the greatest lesson about being a writer, which I learned all on my lonesome during my 13th summer of inactivity. It was then that I learned how important it was to boost my knowledge, imagination and preparation for future writing by reading anything and everything in sight.
I consumed tons of comic books, newspapers, paperbacks, library books and magazines, becoming an annoying source of useless information for anyone who would listen. (No surprise, these are pastimes that live on for me to this day.) That is, until I could use that information — or knowledge I used in gathering said information — in stories I wrote. Like this blog post you’re reading.
King’s quote from pg. 145 of On Writing said it much more succinctly: If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
Reading is Learning
For this blog post, I’m focused more on the reading than the writing for a very important reason: Reading, as King goes on to say, presents its own learning process. It’s not studying per se, but each book “has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”
Unfortunately, our plugged-in society has made it so easy for us to avoid the bad books, the bad movies, the bad articles — or make fun of them — we’ve bypassed a very important part of our writing learning process. We learn valuable lessons by being exposed to the good and bad in anything. Writing is no exception.
Also, content writers can get so focused on the interesting and not-so sexy subjects they get paid to write about, they forget about feeding their brains. Spending that extra 15 minutes scouring your RSS reader to learn something new yesterday that you can share with your readers today is so vital.
Reading matters, especially today, for what we learn about our world and ourselves every day. When we stop wanting to learn, we die a little every day. Or as Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
This may explain why I have so many half-read books laying on my nightstand, from Marc Maron’s autobiographical Attempting Normal to Creative Intelligence: Harnessing The Power to Create, Connect and Inspire by Bruce Nussbaum, Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer Holland and The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly.
I never want to finish all the books on my plate, and I never want to stop learning…do you? Don’t hesitate to ask us about the content writing and content strategy we craft for our clients at esd & associates.