Learning to Write: Read Good Writing and What Else?

By Jack Limpert

Going to work as a journalist without having been to journalism school, I tried to learn about writing by reading good writers. While on vacation in 1987 I read Scott Turow’s novel Presumed Innocent. You couldn’t wait to turn the page to find out what happened next. How’d he do it? I reread the book: He had two intertwined narratives, with both pulling the reader along.

After becoming an editor, I learned a lot about writing by trying to make a story better. I never liked to change a writer’s language: If as a reader I was confused, I’d ask the writer to make it clearer. (As the New Yorker’s Harold Ross like to write in the margins of manuscripts, “What the hell do you mean?”)

If as a reader I was bored, I’d try to speed up the writing by cutting words (many adverbs and adjectives), sentences, and paragraphs. I liked to think we were taking a story going 45 miles an hour and make it go 70 miles an hour, just over the speed limit. Most writers took that kind of editing pretty calmly, and if a writer asked for something to be restored, we’d almost always do it as long the putting-it-back was done in moderation.

When our daughter Ann was at Connecticut College, Blanche McCrary Boyd, an English teacher and writer-in-residence, told her to keyboard good writers into her computer, apparently figuring that keyboarding imprinted good writing on the brain in ways that reading did not.

Other writers have believed in that approach. Here’s evidence from a charming little book, Odd Type Writers, by Celia Blue Johnson:

Many great writers developed their voices, in part, by tracing the words of their favorite predecessors. While Jack London handwrote Rudyard Kipling stories, Ray Bradbury hammered out pieces by authors he admired on a typewriter to help perfect his own prose. In moments of utmost despair, Bradbury dropped entire paragraphs by Tom Wolfe into his drafts. “Because I couldn’t do it, you see. I was so frustrated!” he proclaimed in an interview for the Paris Review. As a teen, Joan Didion learned to type while copying out Ernest Hemingway’s work. She was particularly impressed by his “perfect sentences.”

Rewriting a favorite novel is one way to absorb the style of a literary master. Other writers chose to read a particular book every day before they set to work. The process of reading helped each of these authors warm up before setting pen to paper. . . .Somerset Maugham developed a ritual of reading Voltaire’s Candide before diving into a new novel. “So that I may have in the back of my mind the touchstone of that lucidity, grace, and wit,” he noted.

Willa Cather read the Bible before she wrote. According to Thornton Wilder, Cather wanted “to get in touch with fine prose.” He noted that she regretted choosing an archaic text, but the habit had already stuck. May Angelou also found inspiration in the Bible, which she kept nearby while she worked. When asked why she used the Bible, Angelou responded, “For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business.”

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