Photo of Scrabble tiles that spell out READ MORE

By Jacqui Banaszynski

Imagine the directive in the image above is not an end game, but a prompt. What if you added something more descriptive? Read more broadly. Read more thoughtfully. Read more openly. Or, my mantra: Read more like a writer.

I’ve no doubt mentioned that before — my belief that reading is one of the foundations of writing. It may be as important as the act of writing itself, although it’s only the writing that transforms internalized knowledge to applied skill. But writing without the knowledge — without an understanding of the mechanics involved in putting words together — too often leads to the failings that leave a piece boring, trite, clichéd, vague, confusing, boring, boring, boring… Pick your pet reader peeve.

Writers know what they mean when they put marks on a page or screen, and may have a lot of passion for their subject. But to be effective, a writer needs to crack the codes of the written word. Letters and words and sentences and paragraphs are, by themselves, abstractions. It takes a writer to make meaning from them, and to make them compelling to an audience.

And that writer needs to understand how writing works. Which requires a study of writing, no less than a musician studies the notes of music or an athlete studies the rules and moves of a sport.

Here is where I need to declare: I do not have a deep education in writing or literature. I had a good grounding in elementary school and into high school. Once in college, my journalism classes subbed for any English courses, so I was pretty much on my own going into my career. Semi-solid grammar? Sure. Literary confidence and depth and elegance? Not so much.

But I was reading before I was 4 — or so I’ve been told — and never stopped. Once in newsrooms, I had newsroom editors and colleagues who were eager to point out my habitual writing flubs. I also clung to the fierce notion that my copy was mine — and mine to fix when it failed. (Long-ago colleagues still tell the story of my not-very-professional and not-at-all-ladylike reaction when an assigning editor dared to rewrite one of my stories instead of sending it back for me to revise.)

A lifelong education

The point: somewhere along the way, I started to internalize a bit of how writing works. Once I realized I was doing that instinctively, I started doing it consciously. I still read fiction to be transported into other lives and worlds; I read it for the story. I read nonfiction books (biographies and histories) to learn; it puts people and episodes into a more thorough context. I read journalistic pieces for hours each day for knowledge and understanding; I want to be an engaged citizen, and a useful journalist/teacher.

But no matter the piece, I read not just for what a writer says, but for how s/he says it. If a piece I read is especially clear, especially compelling, especially emotional, especially visual, I take one small moment to squint at the engineering of words that made it so.

It’s not perfect, this continuing self-education. As the pages turn ever forward on my life calendar, I get frustrated at the lateness of my start and the limits of my knowledge. I wonder, at times, how much easier or better my own writing would be if I had been schooled differently.

But the pragmatist in me soon shouts all that wah-wah down and I get on with it, grateful for the learning that comes to me everyday, ready for the taking. I recently suggested a few of my favorite go-to sites for the free study of journalism. Below, I offer a few of my most-read blogs or newsletters, not because of the content of each but because of what they demonstrate about effective and creative use of the written word.

Tom Jones, The Poynter Report: Conversational with authority. I feel we’re having coffee or a beer and he’s telling me all the stuff he’s found out, sourcing included. It doesn’t surprise me that he spent most of his career as a sports reporter. Those guys are fast — and know their stuff.

Charles P. Pierce, Esquire politics blog: Humor (the hardest thing to write) laced throughout with a dazzling knowledge of history, culture, music, religion, sports, politics, literature, science and even dinosaurs. (Charlie also comes from the world of sports reporting. Blister-fast.) You might not agree with his take, but it’s a great study in voice and creativity.

Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American: Ties present-day events to history. A master of clarity and credibility. I was sadly slow to her work and now consider it a morning must.

Cristian Lupsa, Draft Four: The Romanian journalist and former Nieman fellow writes as well as any native English-speaker/writer I know, and better than most. “Draft Four” is his one-year venture in self-discipline and self-exploration as he transitions from the magazine he founded to whatever is next. It’s inspiring because of its vulnerability, but also how deeply he sources — challenges — his ideas. If you want to study essay structure within a focused narrative frame, this should be on your list.

Dale Keiger, The Joggled Mind: Keiger is the retired editor of the Johns Hopkins Magazine, a skilled self-taught photographer, as voracious a reader as I know, and an eclectic writer who likes to play with ideas and criticism. Another example of a strong voice — this one far different than any of the above — always wrapped in literary elegance.

Frank Bruni newsletter: Bruni is teaching at Duke University now and writing books. He remains a contributing opinion editor at The New York Times. I check in on his newsletter for his personal take on issues of the day, but mostly love the last notes he includes every week: “For the Love of Sentences.” He features brief snippets from all sorts of published work, often recommended by his readers. It’s like a literary TikTok. A smart one.

Enough for now. Please remember no list is ever complete or adequate. Find your own, and share. I’m hoping to get around to book recommendations soon.

Further Reading