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First Read, Then Write

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote profound words in one of his journals that are not as well known as his other quotes but have the power to jolt every beginner who has aspirations to become a writer.

He wrote:

“Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.” 

What he is saying is profound on two levels. On one level, he is encouraging us to go to the library and read the works of great men. Then on the other level, he is whipping us to take their word as gospel. 

An avid reader himself, Emerson read a lot. But more importantly, he questioned a lot. He was a ferocious reader. He was known to take long walks and write everything felt, observed, and inferred during his walks. 

But what is less known about him was that Emerson enrolled himself to study divinity at age twenty-one. Graduate study in divinity in1824 meant almost entirely Bible study.

Emerson was intrigued him was the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. Proverbs is not gospel, and it is not a great narrative like Genesis. It is a minor book. 

Emerson wanted to write a book like the book of Proverbs. Not to annotate but to write his own scripture. He wanted to write one of those books that collect and embody the wisdom of their times. Emerson looked on Solomon as a fellow writer, someone to be imitated, not just venerated.

Almost thirty years later, in the last paragraph of his final essay in his 1850 book Representative Men he wrote, “We too must write Bibles.”

Books have that kind of power.

Recently I came across Robert D. Richardson’s masterpiece, First We Read, Then we Write. Richardson wanted to write William James’ biography, but he realized he didn’t have enough intellectual firepower to tackle William James, so he decided to write biographies of Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson first.

It took Richardson ten years to write three biographies.

His method was to read everything his subjects had read, in the sequence in which they read it, tracing their intellectual development.

Better readers become better writers.

Reading helps develop critical thinking. You shouldn’t just read for pleasure but also to broaden your horizons. 

Read books rather than just articles. Read books outside your genre. Old books which have withheld the test of time are better than new bestsellers, which come and go. 

Reading will inspire new ideas. By making reading a part of your routine, you can continually expose yourself to new ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

Read like a writer. The art of reading like a writer doesn’t come instantly. You need to work at it. Read with a pen and notebook. Underline what intrigues you. Whenever you come across a new idea, stop, make a note, either in your notebook or on the side of the book itself, so that you can transfer it to your notes-taking system later.

Reading exposes you to a variety of writing styles. 

Writers are shaped by other writers. 

The books we read and the writers we follow influence us and impact our writing style. The writers who shape us are almost like unofficial mentors. 

By reading widely and closely, voracious readers can learn at the feet of the English languge’s most talented writers.

Reading in different various genres exposes you to different styles of writing. Learn how you can incorporate them into your writing. For example, many non-fiction books borrow fiction techniques of storytelling. They have a hero’s journey and narrative structure and dialogues, which make them an interesting read. 

Similarly, reading literature can help you write better scientific books. Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind has literary tones.

Reading allows you to study grammar in context. 

Ever tried to read a grammar book? It is boring.

But read a well-written and well-edited book, and you will get lessons in grammar that are easy to learn and joy to watch in action.

Think of reading a novel or short story as a hack that lets you study grammar without having to work through a textbook. 

Good books clearly communicate their messages, and to clearly communicate, you must have a good knowledge of grammar. 

When reading books, pay attention to the grammar, notice how professional authors use punctuation, sentence structure, active and passive voice, action verbs, and basically tackle any grammar questions you are struggling to understand.

Reading helps you expand your vocabulary. 

While reading, build our vocabulary. Whenever you come across a new word, jot it down, check its meaning and try to use it in your writing the same day. You will never forget it that way.

According to lexicographer and dictionary expert Susie Dent, “an average person’s active vocabulary is around 20,000 words, whereas a writer’s vocabulary is expected to be 30,000. Shakespeare used 31,534 different words in his works. 

Read voraciously and read with purpose. Recognize what other authors do best and learn from them. All you have to do is study their work.

Stephen King famously said:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. Simple as that.” 

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