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Have you ever watched any of the Gordon Ramsay shows? If you haven’t, you’re missing out because the guy is entertaining as hell. Some of the insults he hurls at the cretins in the kitchens have me wheezing with laughter. Granted, it must take courage to work with him because he’s like a General commanding an army, shouting out orders and scaring the bejesus out of the new recruits.

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He’s abrasive, he’s impatient, but we forgive him for it because he’s passionate and let’s face it, he knows what he’s talking about.

But there’s something else I noticed about him outside of these on-screen antics: He is constantly tasting new dishes. He also does a lot of traveling to eat in places renowned for their food. Not just five-star restaurants, but tiny family owned places famous for their cooking. He does a lot of research into ingredients, where they came from, how they’re grown. Why does he do all that? Because in order for him to keep the magic in his cooking, he has to continue to observe and learn how others do it. He has to taste it and see it to know it.

I’ve found the same to be true for writing so I thought I’d pass along what I’ve learned. A sometimes overlooked but vital component in the writer’s journey is that they must continue to read to keep their writing vibrant and original. Why?

Three main reasons:

  1. It gives you a front row seat to effective storytelling and narrative, characterization and dialogue, tension and pacing.
  2. It expands vocabulary (Does anyone else have a little book into which they jot down cool words they want to use?)
  3. It reinvigorates the imagination – Have writer’s block or stuck in a scene? Reading can loosen that knot faster than a tenured sailor on a clipper ship.
  4. Okay, here’s a bonus part to this: It’s fun!

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Has anyone else ever been reading a book only to stop, scratch your head, and wonder if it was written by an author who doesn’t read in the genre they’re writing or maybe at all? I see the emotion or setting they’re reaching for but they just can’t seem to effectively articulate it. I can’t help but feel this is because they haven’t seen how it’s done. One can argue that it’s a matter of talent but I feel it is more inexperience coupled with a lack of investment in learning. Pouring over books on craft is important to know the tools to writing, but reading novels/short stories/novellas demonstrates how to wield them.

But I don’t have time for reading!

Obviously, to be a writer you have to actually write books and time is limited–especially for those doing this gig on the side–but really, one has to make the time for it. I wish I had a more eloquent (or diplomatic?) response to this. Reading time is not wasted writing time. The mind is working on one’s own writing while doing it. And step AWAY from Netflix. Watching storytelling is not nearly as helpful as reading it on the page—I’ve had to beat back my lazy side when it tries to win this argument with that logic. Resist!!

Read Effectively

It’s fun to sink into a story, but a mentor of mine pointed out that it’s important to pay attention as well. I love dissecting how a book made me feel the way it did, figuring out what the author did (or didn’t do) to grab my attention. My internal monologue goes something like this: “Hm, I liked that side character. Why? How did the author make him/her distinct from the others? I’m dying to read more about the romantic subplot. How come? How did the author hook my heart?”

I observe it, take notes (yes, I’m a big nerd. are you really surprised?), and mash all that literary goodness into my own work my own way. If only dissecting frogs were this fun, I’d have totally snagged an A back during my bio/chem lab.

The biggest realization I’ve gotten from reading? Writing is not all “learn by doing”. It’s also “learn by observing”. Personally, when I’m not writing—or changing a diaper—I’ve got my face in a book. With eBooks priced at $2.99 or less (or on Kindle Unlimited or even free a lot of times), cost isn’t the barrier it used to be for this crucial aspect in a writer’s life.

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All. The. Time.

The first rule of writing for me is this: Read. Read widely and voraciously. Think like a chef. Words are the ingredients. Spend time with them outside of the kitchen.

Any writers out there live by this one? What other fundamentals help you along in your writing?

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