Over the summer I learned quite a bit about writing. But over the summer I did almost no actual writing. Here’s what I learned about how to improve your writing without writing.
Basically, there are two key concepts, two key actions that I took over the summer that have changed my outlook to writing, and that seem essential to prevent or counter writer’s block and burn-out.
I’ve talked about this before. And since talking about it, I have taken the practice of reading quite seriously, working through books of fiction and nonfiction, in genres I love and dislike or have never read. I want to read widely. And I want to read a lot. It’s impossible to be a good writer if you are not a good reader. Stories are essential to writing and the easiest way to consume stories is through reading.
Reading provides an avenue for exploration of worlds, characters, and conflicts which can inspire you to write and inspire you to tell the stories floating around your mind. There’s nothing quite like getting lost in a world so vividly imagined, or following a character through trial after trial. A good story pulls you in and inspires you to create your own stories. Reading good books provides a tangible reminder of what you want to do with your own stories.
Additionally, reading as a writer also provides an exploration of craft. As a reader, you are invited into the mind of the writer. You are able to experience the world they have created for their story and you get just a glimpse of the process behind the book. Through reading you are able to trace form, style, tropes, and cliches across different books in different genre. Through wide reading you can begin to understand how some writers use language and sentence structure to form their worlds. You begin to see how some tropes can be used in new ways, and how cliches can be given interesting twists. Through wide reading you get a feel for voice and how each writer, regardless if they write in the same genre as another writer, has a unique voice that shines through their story.
erhaps much of what you do while reading is unconscious for your writing, but the mere exposure to literature will influence the way you write and the way you approach the craft of writing. Then you can move beyond unconscious influence to more active reading where you think about what you like or dislike in a book, why an author might have used this method or this style to present their story in this way, and whether or not you think a similar method will work well for your own writing. Thinking developmentally, you can examine how a author builds the relationships between their characters. You can look at pacing, conflict, worldbuilding, and subplots all as study-able aspects of writing craft.
Basically, through reading you can consciously adopt the best of the writing craft and leave the things that you don’t like. By being an active reader, your writing craft will necessarily be influenced and changed.
The second thing I have learned this summer is about the importance of rest for flourishing work. I like to stay busy and I often will say yes to things that crowd my schedule to the point where I have to pull late nights or isolate myself from other things in order to get everything done. But what I have been learning this summer is about how ineffective I can become from saying yes to too many things, and furthermore how I become overwhelmed and unmotivated to do the things I love, one of which is writing.
I have since been working on setting aside specific time for intentional rest. This can be anything from making sure I get eight hours of sleep, to setting aside time where I am not committed to any projects or activities and can do as I please. I have found setting this time intentionally means that I am less likely to procrastinate with the time I have set aside for working because I am also setting time to not work.
The work of rest is serious business. In the writing process, the time spent not writing is just as important as the time spent writing. You cannot be an effective writer if all you do is write. There are too many other aspects to life that must happen in balance to the time spent writing, meaning there will be a lot of time not spent writing as well. I think too often it can be easy to think that because I have not written in a day, that it was a wasted day. But this attitude does not account for the importance of setting time to rest and rejuvenate.
Learning that good writing comes from at least 1 part writing to 1 part rest was an important (and tough!) lesson for me, and one that I am still working on practicing. It’s an odd thing to think that rest is something that needs to be practiced, but our society (and ourselves), really push us to always be performing at a certain level or based on some seemingly unreachable status quo. But that perspective ignores the quality to our writing, or any work, that comes from also building rest into our lives.
As a student, I’ve been able to understand this importance of balancing work with rest through this analogy. My parents always encouraged me to do my best in my schoolwork, but when they said that, they didn’t mean that I had to stay up all night on caffeine-fueled energy to do something to the point of perfection. Doing my best meant (and means) learning to balance health, relationships, and the project I was working on for school. Our best work on any project, whether artistic, for school, for writing, or for anything else, comes from of a place of refreshment, not from a place of overexertion.
As I head back into the school year and the routines and busyness of academics, I hope to continue reflecting and practicing what I learned over the summer.