It is a truth universally acknowledged that non-fiction is worthy reading, teaching us useful facts and making us more knowledgeable, and therefore more awesome.
Fiction, on the other hand, is good only for escapism, for relaxing from the trials of our more taxing reading, and for recharging our batteries, perhaps. Lesser mortals may indulge in fiction, but the truly driven will pave their road to success with the noble volumes of non-fiction.
I come across this assumption often, either explicitly stated or implicitly woven into an argument, and I feel sad that holders of this belief are missing out on the treasure trove of learning that fiction (and other non-factual genres) can offer.
We often read based on content rather than style and technique, and therefore assume that genres are completely disparate, and that we can’t learn across genres — for example, we may not recognize that our factual articles all tell a story, or that character creation is a crucial technique for a personality-based brand.
But contrary to popular belief, reading fiction can teach us everything we could ever learn from a book or other text about how to write (although the best teacher remains the literal practice of writing itself).
It all depends on how we think learning works. Passively, through facts? Or actively, through almost everything — if we’re open to it.
If your work involves writing, editing, creating content, or otherwise messing around with words, read on to discover how to recombine “learning” and “pleasure” through the art of Active Reading — no matter what the genre.
Active Reading is the name I’m giving to a process that we’re all probably familiar with, yet may not have given conscious thought to. It’s when you read anything and everything with an eye and an ear for what makes it work.
Instead of just consuming the narrative events of a novel, you think about why it’s so gripping. Wow, you might think, this author really uses short sentences to drive the action along at moments of tension. Or perhaps, this novel left me so unsatisfied — probably because it promised so much and then didn’t shape the story arc into a satisfying climax.
We all have these feelings while we’re reading — enjoyment, frustration, confusion, delight, fascination, boredom, or wonder. Active Reading is about recognizing these responses, and pondering why certain combinations of words can have certain effects, and how you can achieve these effects (or avoid them) in your own writing.
We don’t just stop at “good book” or “crap book,” but we get curious about why we respond to certain things, and not others.
Think of it as going deeper by (paradoxically) zooming out a level. Just as a therapist may not engage with a client’s story directly, but may drop to a deeper level by asking “what are you feeling right now,” or “why are you telling this story,” thus helping to reveal unconscious motivations, so too can we get curious in our reading to get a sense of the big picture.
We can zoom out a little from the narrative events of a novel, or the literal information of an article, to consider more deeply how it does what it does.
In the traditions of apprenticeship, a young person went to a master of their craft to learn from them. Often, they would be ignored or given mundane tasks to do. Novices in Rembrandt’s studios (because he fundamentally ran a glorious painting business, rather than being a lone genius) would be made to fill in backgrounds or prepare canvasses for years before being allowed to undertake more challenging tasks.
It was understood that simply by being around a master such as Rembrandt, students would absorb and study his way of being and seeing — the “how,” not just the “what.” Before learning any techniques, they had to be thoroughly grounded in the very mood of the master.
What does this mean for us as writers in the 21st century?
First, it shows us that mastering a craft is about much more than technique. A piece of writing can be technically correct and yet still utterly underwhelming. Mastery is about the whole life, mood, orientation, values, and perspective of the craftsperson. Techniques can serve a vision, but not stand in place of it.
Second, it shows us that to learn from a master, it takes humility, and a willingness to observe and learn far beyond said techniques. When we read, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, we are immersed in the writer’s way of seeing, feeling, and expressing. Active Reading is about becoming aware of this immersion, and observing what we enjoy or don’t enjoy about a piece of writing. It’s a sensitivity to tone and nuance that takes time to learn.
The nature of apprenticeship is to always be ready to learn. As writers, we can continually be learning how to write better from everything we read. Great artists, like the English mystic poet William Blake, saw themselves as continually apprenticed to life, willing to learn from whatever they encountered, even if they disagreed with 98 percent of it. Blake’s annotations to the works of many of his (now-forgotten) contemporaries show an incredible ability to appreciate occasional gems even amidst a steaming pile of garbage. (You can read more about Blake and see his works at the fantastic resource that is The William Blake Archive.)
You could say we have all been apprenticed — to our caregivers and other teachers, during that time of learning known as childhood. Most of us learned a pretty mixed bag! By “reading” the adults around me, I learned not only their literal content (what they said), but also their implicit style and perspective (how they were).
No one ever sat me down and taught me to worry; that teaching was implicit. It was in the whole mood of the adults around me. Similarly, the difference between a great teacher and a terrible one at school was always one of attitude — the curriculum was the same, but warmth, encouragement, friendliness, and security in themselves went a long way to bringing it alive.
Just so, when we read, we can implicitly learn from our chosen authors — from how they are, not just what they say. We can learn about the mood in which a thing is done, absorbing the ability to spin suspense, craft gripping dialogue, or touch something so honest it brings tears to the eyes of readers.
Choose the writerly ateliers you want to hang out in wisely!
From the authorial company we keep, and our willingness to learn from it, will come our ability to write engaging, effective, enjoyable, and readable content.
My sister recently quit Coca-Cola cold turkey. She’s been addicted to it, and as a result has been feeling pretty unhealthy. She remembers family trying to convince her to quit by telling her facts about how unhealthy and toxic the drink is.
“That didn’t help,” she said. “It just made me feel even worse about myself, which made me drink even more Coca-Cola.”
Facts didn’t help her change. What did was feeling attracted to having a happier body — “I remember feeling healthy,” she said, and decided then and there to quit.
Facts are one kind of learning, but they’re not the most exciting or effective kind. We live in an age that is saturated with facts, but pretty slim on wisdom.
When we elevate non-fiction above fiction, we may be showing a preference for facts over understanding, thinking that non-fiction is just about facts, but this misses the point. When I think that a book on “how to write gripping storylines” will be a better investment of time than Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I’m misunderstanding what kind of learning has the potential to transform me as a writer.
Facts are the literal content of a piece of writing. “How will something about a bunch of 19th-century Russians help me write better?” asks the fact-conscious reader. Active Reading is about absorbing the style, structure, tone, mood, and essence of a writer, and from this absorption learning to craft your own writing, whether a great novel or a sales pitch.
Facts are important, but not enough. Active Reading looks deeper into what really makes a work tick, and learns those secrets directly.
In standing up for fiction, I’m not putting down non-fiction. On the contrary, I’m saying it doesn’t matter at all what genre a piece of writing comes from: we learn the “how” of it, not the “what” of it.
Sometimes I feel inspired by the writing on a shampoo bottle, or the sweet turn of phrase on a hand-painted sign advertising vegetables. Sometimes I feel inspired by a great novel by a master novelist, and sometimes by a cheesy page-turner that just touches on emotions so skillfully.
How did they do that? I wonder to myself.
What made that so gripping/cute/playful/dark/awkward/humorous?
How can I incorporate that quality into my own writing?
Limiting ourselves to the genre that we think will give the most useful literal information — non-fiction — will severely limit the pool of inspiration we are able to draw on.
Just because we read fiction, however, is no guarantee we are learning from it. Reading fiction only for escapism limits our ability to consciously learn from it. Escapist reading requires a kind of exhausted numbness, where plot becomes the only relevant factor and liberal doses of sex and violence are required to keep us turning the pages. When we read in a numb state, we don’t inquire into the skill that goes into even the most junk-foody of novels.
Reading actively means that even if we dislike a piece of writing, we can learn heaps about what doesn’t work, about what we don’t like, and perhaps get completely excited by how we might have done it differently, or what we want to avoid at all costs.
I have a friend who is very interested in cars. He is always buying and selling second-hand vehicles, doing them up, thinking about them, asking other people about theirs, reading about them, and most of all, enjoying driving them.
There’s no doubt he has a passion for the subject.
His passion makes him curious and eager to learn more, and it makes knowledge stick when he does learn it.
By contrast, my interest in cars extends as far as wanting to get around cheaply, without looking like too much of a dork. I get a little bit interested in things like going fast, those headlights that pop up like little eyes, or a license plate that kind of spells my name, but you couldn’t call me passionate about vehicles by any stretch.
Occasionally, I “learn” things like checking oil, changing a tire, or what the difference is between fuel injection and a carburetor (see, fancy words!) — and promptly forget again. The interest just isn’t there.
You can’t make yourself be interested in something you don’t have a passion for. Apprentices wouldn’t have lasted long sweeping the floors of Rembrandt’s atelier if they weren’t passionate about painting and the work of the studio, and wanted to contribute and absorb in whatever ways possible.
In a similar way, you can’t force yourself into Active Reading if you’re fundamentally not that interested in words and writing. Active Reading is about wonder, curiosity, playfulness, fascination, and … well … let’s be honest, just really geeking out.
If you find yourself trying to forcefully learn more about good writing by chugging back non-fiction tomes, I beg you, stop. Breathe. Take a nap, maybe. What you’re doing is violent to your nature.
If your passion isn’t writing, but you need to write for business or practical reasons, then reading about what you are passionate about, and observing how it spins its magic, can be a sideways route into the magic of words.
Reconnect with what you are curious about and find easy to learn. What book on a friend’s coffee table would cause you to go “ooooh!” and interrupt the conversation to leaf through it? What subject will you wax eloquent on, given half a chance?
If the subject you love to talk about is not writing or words, and you need to create written content for yourself or your business, please, get someone else to do it who is passionate about wordcraft, if at all possible.
Yes, we all need to do things we don’t like sometimes, and any entrepreneur knows that at times they have to wear many different hats, some of which come naturally and some of which don’t. But there’s no point forcing ourselves to learn facts and techniques about something as creative and mysterious as writing when the love isn’t there.
If you do want to persist and improve as a writer, but acknowledge that it’s not really your thing, consider working with a good editor or editorial service (like us!) to get that polish and flair.
It might sound waffly or impractical for everyone to focus on doing what they feel passion and love for. In a world where many of us live at a frantic pace and deal with impossible-feeling demands on our time and energy, our passion may be deeply dormant and live only as a vague craving for sleep and fried chicken.
But it’s actually deeply practical, because passion is the force that transforms rote learning (regular reading) into deep, enthusiastic knowledge (Active Reading), like my friend’s interest in cars. People go to him for help with buying and selling vehicles, and he is naturally becoming an authority in the subject. It’s a small step transforming this natural authority into income.
A person with passion is paddling downstream (note how they are still paddling!).
Active Reading is the curiosity that can spring from a writer’s passion for writing.
Not all reading is created equal. We can consume screeds of books, articles, blogs, and tutorials without ever becoming aware of or absorbing the principles of craftsmanship that are continually being offered to us.
Active Reading means slowing down, and getting interested in why certain pieces of writing affect us the way they do, and what exactly is going on. Active Reading combines pleasure and learning, excitement and study. Active Reading helps us stop discriminating against fiction and start gaining writing skills from everything.
It doesn’t matter what genre you actively read, because you’re going beyond the literal content — the “what”— and reading for the approach, the perspective, the style — the “how.” The goal is appreciation, not analysis; absorption, not rote learning.
The voracious appetite of the Active Reader is made possible only by their great enthusiasm and passion for words and communication. Without this passion, reading won’t be play, discovery, and joy. It will only be mindless consumption, whether for escapism or “self-improvement” through factual information.
Slow down, savor the words, get curious about their magic. Become conscious of your responses. Give admiration where admiration is due. Become an apprentice once again.
Rosalind Atkinson works as a freelance writer and editor. A great fan of an elegant sentence or a tasty word, she has authored academic pieces on William Blake, and articles for Greenpeace, elephant journal, Overland, and the Vessel Magazine, among others. She escaped academia with a Masters in English Literature, and has done time as a blogwriter, a research assistant, a baker, a costume illustrator for film, and a (kinda seasick) sailor around the Pacific and Subantarctic. She lives in a converted cowshed in the lush far north of New Zealand, where she writes, saves for an old-school printing press, and marvels at how clever and awesome nature is.