This is perhaps the least original title for advice to writers, but it’s the fundamental piece of advice that has helped me write.
And I take it differently than most.
How each writer will achieve success is ultimately a deeply individual process. Different inspirations can drive writing, and personality plays a role in determining workflow and process.
But there is one trait that I’ve observed repeatedly as I watch writers and as I read writers’ work on writing.
They read one word at a time.
Now, telling writers to read is probably a moot point. It would be a very rare author who does not read prolifically. The likes of Steven King even emphasize how much of a role reading plays in their writing process, and read one or two books a week to keep sharp, gather inspiration, and do research.
But that’s not what seems to lead them to success.
What leads them to success is a love of the written word. They don’t read for an external purpose, but for the value of each word on the page.
Anyone who has grown up with the American academic system is probably familiar with the rapid skim-reading of textbooks, where we even teach students to look for headlines, titles, section headings, and bold words to get the point as quickly as possible.
This text-as-communication method has value, but it’s not the writer’s form of reading.
Read for the words. Pick up poetry, or a book on something you’re passionate about, or an eloquently written piece by a classic writer, and go slowly through it.
Try to get a feel for what the writer was thinking, what their purpose was. You’re not looking at the message here, you’re searching for the spark that lit up the page when the author put the pen to paper. How are they bringing that to you?
An excellent writer will be an excellent communicator. But the communication is the foundation, not the whole. If the message is the forest, each word is a tree: better trees make for a more beautiful forest.
Read one word at a time. Don’t analyze grammar or syntax, don’t feel forced to go in chronological order, don’t require yourself to draw a conclusion or abstain from thinking. Just take in the word for what it is. Where is the meaning? Where is the value? Treasure it just as the author did.
After that, you’ll know what it is to write.