Frankly, the most impactful thing you can to do improve your creative writing is to read more. If you read thousands of books you will likely absorb a great deal about how to write well. In a selection of thousands of books there will be some real stinkers, and they will teach you as well: what not to do. Reading a couple of thousand books, over the course of about a decade, is a good and perhaps essential strategy if you want to become a professional writer. Two or three books a week, every week, for ten years. Some hours every day devoted to just reading. That’s an excellent start for someone who wants to earn a living from the page. (Me, your instructor: I typically read about 2 hours per day, maybe four hours per day over the summer. I’ve been doing it for 40 years. I have way too many books, but I also have a career in professional creative writing.)
If you read hundreds of books you will learn a fair bit about writing (and about many other things as well). A few hundred is a good start for someone who wants to be a lifelong reader. A book a week, every week, for pleasure – roughly an hour a day of reading – will, over ten years, yield a library of more than 500 books. Not bad. Definitely in the territory of well-read – and being well-read is one of the best pathways to being an interesting, engaged, purposeful person in life.
If you read dozens of books, you will learn what type of reading you like but you will not learn too much about writing or anything else. Dozens of books is not enough to learn deeply about any complex topic (such as writing) nor to understand complex issues such as climate change, mental health, or any field of deep knowledge (science, culture, art, and so on). Dozens of books on a single topic is enough to learn quite a bit about that topic in an isolated way; but all significant subjects are deeply interconnected with other fields – for which there are more books to read and more things to learn. For example, climate change is not just about the climate; it’s also about culture, and technology, and science, and psychology, and economics, and a vast array of other fields. So, general knowledge and wide reading are interconnected.
You can look to your parents for blame or praise when it comes to reading. If you were surrounded by books as a child, you are much more likely to be an avid reader (and to have picked up a number of other useful cognitive skills as well). But if you were not exposed widely to books (and at the right age), and if you have only read a few of them, then you probably don’t like reading or writing. (I can only cook a few things, and I don’t like cooking.) The dose has to be enough to get any real benefit. So, if you are an infrequent reader, just try to find something you will enjoy reading (from the reading list or elsewhere) and see if you can work your way up to 20 minutes every day. That’s enough. Simply try to get started.
Something like 30 percent of households in Canada do not have a single book. Some people don’t read at all. I routinely have students in this class who report that they have not read a book since elementary school. It’s not as uncommon as you might think. Some people get all the way through a university degree and never read (I mean actually read, all the way through) a single book. If you are one of these people, try to read something in this class. If nothing on the reading list grabs you, ask me for more recommendations based on your interests.
In general, when I talk about reading I’m not talking only about literary works or the stuff we’ve read because it was assigned in a traditional class (English class, let’s say). Most of us learn to hate those kinds of books anyway (Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, etc.) precisely because we were forced to read them, or parts of them, in the context of outdated educational beliefs about what it means to be well-read. No, you can read whatever you want in this class: books, comics, newspapers, websites – wherever there are words. And you can read in any genre: sports, fiction, romance, politics – whatever feeds your soul. Just read more.
Here’s the most important part: choose based on what interests you, what makes you curious to learn more, what draws you in. Approach your reading with a sense of pleasure and relaxation. Reading is a contemplative act and should be done in a quiet and focused way. Don’t rush, don’t cram, don’t skim. Read as slowly as you need to. Read with the aim that the words and stories offer you something: excitement, wisdom, knowledge, clarity, freedom. Whatever it is, only you can find it. And the way to find it is to read.
If you want a deeper dive into the question of how to read more, check out this guide from Aeon/Psyche.