Reader 2 Writer
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Often students want to know what they should do to become a better writer. There is a universally accepted and very simple answer: read more. However, I tell students that they should start reading like a writer. What does that mean? It means that when you read, you want to start to reverse engineer what you are reading. You’ll want to notice word length and choice, sentence length, rhetorical devices, style. One of my favorite examples of style can be found in letters.
Here are two letters. The first is a letter from the singer Frank Sinatra to Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-Times in 1976. It seems that Frank did a concert in Chicago, and just a few blocks away from the hotel Frank was staying at an elderly woman was mugged. Apparently, Frank was blamed because somehow most of the CPD was hanging out at Frank’s hotel. The letter is Frank’s response to Mike Royko’s article.
You will notice from the letter that Frank retains the New Jersey style of speech in his writing. His very first sentence is a very New Jersey, “I don’t know you.” You will notice that Frank writes the way he speaks. He doesn’t use fancy words. He doesn’t use fancy sentences. He does like to use metaphors.
The second letter is a letter from legendary rocker Nick Cave to MTV where he declines and MTV nomination. You can read the letter or you can hear Nick himself read it.
Two very different letters, both effective in their own way. These are the types of writing you need to read. You discover these types of writings, by reading, by experiencing the world. I discovered the Frank Sinatra letter watching Antiques Roadshow: an original copy with Frank’s signature was worth $18,000. Nick’s letter was in my Youtube feed because I had been listening to two of Nick’s songs, “The Mercy Seat” and “Red Right Hand.”
Let’s move on. I decided to create a very small and partial list of books and websites that offer some good reading.
- The Bible at https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/. Yep, that’s right. The Bible has some pretty amazing, beautiful, and highly stylistic writing. People have been arguing over it for a long time, and it has been translated and interpreted over and over again. The stories are both tragic and hopeful. Take the story of David and Goliath. It’s a story of class-warfare, literally. David is a rock thrower. Goliath is an armored soldier. Only the rich could afford to armor themselves.
- The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
- The New Yorker at https://www.newyorker.com/ is famous for it’s great writing. My favorite essay from the New Yorker is The Checklist by Dr Atul Gawande at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/10/the-checklist
- The Economist at https://www.economist.com/. I especially like the Obituaries. Here are some of my favorites: Norman Borlaug, Nadia Popova, and Conchita Citron.
- The Correspondent at https://thecorrespondent.com/ at The Correspondent my favorite author is Rutger Bregman.
- Medium at https://medium.com/ now Medium doesn’t have the quality that the other publications do, but it is massive and even students can contribute to Medium.
You can find more great essays and readings here: