Writing Advice: Read before writing

Reading as a writer

As a writer, I’m a reader, too. In fact – and this embarrasses me – I plan my reading on a simple spreadsheet. I keep track of what I read, too, and follow self-imposed rules for all of it. If I had a former life, I probably designed bridges for the King’s carriage. Here’s my first round of 2022:

Place Category Title Complete Stars
1 Any book Writing Without Rules, Somers 01/13/21 3
2 MFA list Book Craft, Murphy 01/06/21 3
3 Fiction Shosha, Singer 01/11/21 4
4 Non-fiction Men’s Health – Get Stronger 02/09/21 3
5 Christian Simply Jesus, NT Wright 01/01/21 5
6 Non-fiction Better Brain Solution, Masley 02/28/21 3
7 Fiction Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset 2/9/2021 3
8 Evo list Demon Haunted World, Sagan 2/28/2021 4
9 Any book GR Random Frankenstein, Shelly
Magazines Bible Study, Jan 2021 X


Each round includes a Christian classic I’ve probably read ten times, a couple of non-fiction and fiction titles from my Goodreads TBR list, something randomly pulled from my boxes of Modern Library titles, and a slot for ‘random’ which usually ends up being the latest and greatest I just read about.  

I read something once from my MFA list with advice that I use almost daily: before sitting down and cracking my knuckles to start writing, I lubricate the gray matter with a paragraph or eight from a favorite author. I’ve done so now for a couple years, and enjoy it as it puts me in a frame I might have missed without this exercise.


Lubricating the gray matter

Depending on whatever essay or book I’m working on, I have authors and writing I page through, hoping that the prose will rub off on me like a virus from a coughing checker at Walmart. If I’m working on non-fiction, my go-to is the superb Annie Dillard. I love her voice, and she magically blends the sacred and commonplace into a whole that is incredibly better than the parts. That, and she became a Catholic to get away from the drone of strumming guitars from the church down the road trying to draw kids to the service. That alone is worth my fealty. And I’ve been that guitar player.

If I’m writing something particularly Christian, I read snippets from JI Paker’s Knowing God or – a recent addition – Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. I read Packer for the erudite prose and for his clear love of G’s message. With Du Mez, I’m challenged to tell the truth.

Fiction is harder as there are so many great writers. My two go-tos are Louise Erdrich and Ann Patchett. I love how both writers keep digging and brushing aside sticks and ask questions until truth is revealed. Both are masters at what they do, both in prose and in plain storytelling. Read anything by either, and you’ll elevate your writing. 

Remember Jolt Cola? It was all the rage among programmers doing late-night shifts for Microsoft and Oracle and went by the byline: All the sugar and twice the caffeine. When I really want to be jolted – see how I did that? – when I really want to be jolted from my slumber, I read something of the essays of Elizabeth Wurtzel. What a hurricane. I don’t think she cared a whit about plumbing the depths of anything, and I can’t say if she struggled over just the right word to sharpen her prose, but her writing is such an injection of I-don’t-give-a-damn-care-in-the-world that it’s worth every word of her essays. She takes complete responsibility for her entire broken self and names names. It’s refreshing. If I can name one writer who lived up to Schopenhauer’s dictum that ’anything not written in blood is hardly worth reading…” it’s Wurtzel. I hope she found some solace in dying.


A keen observation?

I’ve never noticed before, but in writing this down, I see that most of my favs are women. I’m sure there’s an observation here for the hawk-eyed observer. Does it balance it out if I say that my super-duper-favorite-writer-of-all-time is the Russian Count Leo Tolstoy? Who wrote Anna Karenina?

The takeaway

I remember guitarist Eric Clapton being interviewed once about a song recorded by another artist: “I wish I wrote it,” he said. That’s always been my highest praise for creatives, and it’s certainly true of this list. Dillard, Packer, Erdrich, Patchett, or Wurtzell: for any of them, for all of them…I wish I wrote it. I can’t offer another higher praise than that.


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