Whenever I ask someone how to improve my writing, the answer is usually to read more.
I agree with this advice, yet I often wonder how to go about it. How does reading improve your writing? Does it happen at a subconscious level, or are special reading techniques required?
I found the answer in Daphne Gray-Grant’s book “8-1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better.” The book is an excellent primer that teaches you how to write. Gray-Grant is the publication coach who adapts journalism and time-management techniques to help clients improve their writing.
A former journalist, Gray-Grant asserts that the problem is that no one ever taught us how to write. Sure, we wrote essays at university, received grades, and feedback. However, no one ever showed us how to tackle our writing using an effective plan. Gray-Grant goes on to outline an approach every writer can use, whether you want to write a better business blog or you’re drafting a complex nonfiction book.
The keys to successful writing, Gray-Grant says, include planning, research, thinking, determining the “lede” or “angle” for your story, research, writing, revising, and editing. I learned a lot from the book and keep it by my side as I plan my weekly blog posts.
Read passionately and mindfully
One of the most interesting parts of the book is Gray-Grant’s suggestion for using reading to be a better writer. She doesn’t just advocate what she calls “regular reading.” Nope, if you want to write a better business blog you need to “read mindfully and passionately.”
Gray-Grant recommends you read like a passionate artist, caring about what the author is saying and how she says it. She offers some specific suggestions for mindful reading. First, ask yourself what it is that makes you like a particular piece of writing. Conversely, examine writing you dislike. Identifying what not to do is as important as identifying what you want to do. By reading writing you don’t like, you’ll discover flaws to avoid in your own.
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Read widely to be a better writer
Gray-Grant also advises writers to read widely. Business people should not restrict themselves to the newspaper or books on leadership. Branch out into areas such as fiction, short stories, essays, and even self-help books. It’s also important to read outside your field in order to encourage your mind to work in a different way.
Questions to ask when reading
Once you’ve figured out what you like about a piece of writing, dig deeper by asking yourself these 5 questions:
1. What is the basic architecture of the piece?
Does the author present information chronologically? Or in the order of importance? Or in some other way?
2. What kinds of words does the author use?
Are the words short, long, obscure, common, formal, or casual?
3. How is description handled?
Is description based on metaphors or description? If the former, what kinds of metaphors? Do they have a common theme? Do they invoke your sense of sight, sound, taste, smell or touch?
4. How long are the sentences?
Count the number of words in a typical sentence. Are sentences structured in a straightforward fashion? Or do they tend to be more complex?
5. How are transitions handled?
How does the writer lead you from one paragraph to the next? What transitional words—and, therefore, but—are used?
You can ask many more questions about a piece of writing. If you love reading as much as I do, you won’t want to spoil all the fun by asking too many. Gray-Grant suggests analyzing and focusing on one chapter in a work you particularly enjoy.
Of course, there are many other ways to improve your writing, but I certainly can’t think of a more enjoyable way than reading.
A version of this story originally appeared on Polaris Public Relations’ blog, Polaris B.