You don’t need me to tell you one of the best ways to become a better writer is to read. You’ve probably already had this particular sermon preached to you by every writing class you’ve taken and every writing guru out there. It’s old hat.
The real question is, what do you read to become a better writer?
The obvious answer is to read the kind of books you want to write. It goes without saying. If you want to be a great mystery writer, you read mysteries. Great romance writer? Romances. Great business book writer? Go read a great business book.
So instead, let’s look at the less obvious: the power of becoming a multi-genre reader. This idea simply doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Crossing genre lines, stepping outside of your literary comfort zone, may be the missing link you need to up your writing game.
STRANGER THAN NONFICTION
On a recent book coaching project, I was helping an author put the finishing touches on their manuscript. Their target audience was high-level corporate executives and human resources professionals. The point they wanted to make was the importance for leaders to become a student of human behavior. But the book was lacking some practical suggestions on how to accomplish this.
We brainstormed several ideas:
• Leaders could take a psychology course.
• They could bring in a corporate therapist or chaplain to consult them on empathy.
• They could read a book on human behavior.
“I’m afraid these just sound too dry, though,” the author lamented. “There’s nothing on this list that feels new or innovative.”
I agreed with him. It did feel a bit reductionist. So, I pitched him a crazy idea: “What if you recommended they take a break from reading business books and pick up a piece of fiction? Fiction does a great job of forcing you to see a world through the eyes of a character different than yourself. What better lesson in empathy and human behavior can there be?”
“I’ve never thought about it that way,” the author said, mulling the idea over. “I love it. Let’s put it in!”
This isn’t the first time I’ve suggested a similar strategy to a nonfiction author. I recently saw a list of 100 books recommended by 100 CEOs, and there wasn’t one single fiction title on the list. To me, this was indicative that nonfiction writers and readers are totally missing out on the wisdom and insight available in fiction. No wonder many corporate leaders struggle with connection. They don’t know how to be storytellers.
Now don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t have a job without nonfiction. Practically, every book I work on is nonfiction. But if you want to stick out as a nonfiction writer, if you want to make your book a different experience for the reader, you’d do well to pick up more fiction. Too many nonfiction authors simply tell their readers their core message instead of show it to them.
Fiction is the best classroom to learn storytelling. Why? Because the best fiction teaches us something about real life—how to overcome obstacles, how to be better humans, how to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
If you’re working on a nonfiction book—whether that’s as the author, ghostwriter, or an editor—why not indulge in some fiction reading for yourself during the process? In fiction, you’ll find a robust well of colorful vocabulary and powerful description to motivate your inner muse. Too often, the creative spark of fiction is sorely missing in most nonfiction books—so let’s fix that.
A PORTABLE CLASSROOM
The same concept holds true for fiction writers. You need to take the leap across the fiction-nonfiction divide and mix in some nonfiction books to your reading. And not just memoirs or narrative nonfiction, but throw in some business books, too.
For one, so you can learn from successful individuals how to be a better businessperson. Most of us freelancers never took a business class, which is why we struggle with the basics of building a business. Let the world of nonfiction be your portable classroom.
But also because I believe reading nonfiction can make you a better fiction writer, period. Many of the greatest nonfiction writers (like Malcolm Gladwell) can rival Hemingway for their ability to wield prose and drive home a point.
Nonfiction has made me more introspective about my fiction writing. It’s made me ask, “Why is this in here? Is this actually adding value to the story?” I’m currently rewriting a novel, and thanks to nonfiction, I’m finding it easier to cut down on unnecessary fluff, which slows down the plot. In the end, this will make the reading experience so much better.
An easy place to start here for fiction writers are books about writing. If you’ve never read it, check out Stephen King’s On Writing, or Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. If you’ve already read those, then maybe it’s time to graduate to something like Michael Lewis’s Moneyball or one of my personal favorites, Finish by Jon Acuff (great for helping you reframe goal-setting). All of these writers are gifted storytellers who infuse their nonfiction with plenty of engaging anecdotes you can learn from.
As a side note, I also think fiction writers should expose themselves to multiple genres of fiction. If you’re a fantasy writer, go read a mystery. What elements can you bring in to add some fun nuance to your latest epic adventure? If you’re a historical romance writer, go read some character-driven magical realism. How can this help you improve the interiority of the characters you're writing? This type of experimentation can be a ton of fun—for you and your readers.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
A couple years ago, I decided to practice this concept as an experiment. I’d read (or listen) to a piece of fiction, then I’d switch over to nonfiction, then back to fiction—and so on. When coupling this habit with the discipline of daily writing, you’ll notice a distinct difference in how you approach your writing.
When you leverage the best of both worlds, you become a more well-rounded writer. You can shift your writing from two-dimensional to four-dimensional. You’re investing in your mental bank so you can make more withdrawals when needed.
Perhaps you’re already doing this. If so, keep it up! Look at how you can diversify your reading experience further to scale your writing skills. Throw in some poetry or children’s literature—you can learn from any genre when you open your mind to the possibility.
So how about it? Let’s build a reading list together. Let’s expand our horizons and become multi-multi-genre readers, so our writing can become more layered, more nuanced, and more fun.
What’s your go-to book for writing inspiration? What’s the one book you recommend others to read because it will also make them a better writer?
About the Author
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