The Act of Reading

Tom LaRock’s recent post – SQL University – Creative Writing Week – got me thinking about the act of writing. Although interesting, his post sparked two thoughts in my head – about reading and inspiration.


I love reading. There have been years when I’ve read over 100 books. Admittedly, I was required to read about 60 of those for college. But reading, in and of itself, didn’t make me a better writer. It’s not enough to passively read. Passive reading is a great way to kill time and enjoy a good story or learn about a new topic. Actively reading is how you get better at writing. Active reading can be a chore. It goes beyond enjoying the story – you have to look at how the author has structured their narrative. Beyond that, you need to look at how the author is structuring chapters, paragraphs, and even sentences. There’s always a “why” to how words are put together. Variations in sentence structure, word length, and paragraph length can be used to govern pace and are frequently more effective than pure vocabulary to convey mood. I frequently go so far as to keep a thesaurus and dictionary nearby so I can stop and figure out why the author chose a certain word. There’s often a reason behind the choice of a particular word; words have a power and a weight to them. Wise authors choose their words carefully and wisely: you should use “sobriquet” differently than “nickname”. Active reading really requires that the reader look for the conversation between the author and the reader. You aren’t just a consumer, you’re an active participant and you need to make yourself aware of that. If you’re reading fiction, look at how the author is involving you in the story and getting you to care for the characters themselves. In his series of Culture novels, Iain M. Banks draws the reader in through a combination of sweeping conflict,humorous anthropomorphism, and telling the story of galactic intrigue on a human scale. It’s that human touch in the face of an endless, unfamiliar, universe that draws readers in and helps them identify with the characters in the story. Once you start actively reading, you can distinguish how authors draw you in. In Inside Microsoft SQL Server 2008: T-SQL Querying Itzik Ben-Gan promises to reveal the secrets of writing T-SQL. Over the course of the book he slowly introduces knowledge and techniques making it possible for the reader to write better T-SQL. He combines this practical knowledge with the theoretical understanding of why and demonstrates why this knowledge is valuable. It’s the demonstration of value – itself an overt act of persuasion – that is used to keep the reader engaged. I’m really interested in T-SQL and set-based programming but without a value proposition I’m not going to sift through 800 pages of dense technical material. Active reading is how you learn to understand what distinguishes a great author from any other author. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is great because of what is left out. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is great because of what is left in.


Both Tom and Brent brought up great points about keeping inspirational writing close at hand. I keep copies of On Writing Well: The Classic Guide To Writing Nonfiction: 30th Anniversary Edition, The October Country, and there’s usually a William Gibson novel no more than 10 feet away – All Tomorrow’s Parties is a personal favorite. What books inspire you to blog, write articles, fiction, songs, etc? Hit up the comments and share authors that inspire you to improve your writing skills.