A young writer approached me recently about how to improve her writing. Of course the most obvious answer is, "Write. A lot." The more we practice anything, the better we become at doing it. But it's also true that practicing bad habits reinforces weak skills, and that's where the need for good teachers comes in. A well-written book read with a discerning eye can teach a writer more than a dozen creative writing classes or critique groups can even attempt.
At last fall's SCBWI conference in Golden, Colorado, renowned children's author, Avi, said in his keynote, "Writers don't write writing; they write reading." Unless we are journaling for our own pleasure or self-discovery, we strive as writers to create text that one day someone will choose to read. Writers write reading. Therefore, anyone hungry to write well must devour as many well-written books as they possibly can.
In discussing this with friend and writer Heather Cyr Preusser, she recited the philosophy of Bennington College's MFA program: "Read one hundred books. Write one." Perfect. How can we aspire to create something remarkable if we've never seen (or read or heard or tasted) anything remarkable to begin with? If we are hungry to write well, we must read well, too.
For an aspiring writer, it makes sense to start by reading writers who write about their own art and craft, in addition to writing in their genre. Many such books include valuable references to other writers' work, as well as stories and lessons learned from teachers and mentors.
Below are some of the books I have returned to year after year, and which I recommend to anyone hungry to write well.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life by Natalie Goldberg
The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets by Ted Kooser
Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft by Jane Yolen
The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
How Does a Poem Mean? by John Ciardi