In 2012, I made the decision to read all 100 of the books listed on the NY Times Best Books of 2011 list. Each year, The Times lists “the best” books published in that year spanning fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Since I began to expand my brand, which includes writing, I thought it would be a useful experiment to begin reading books that were critically praised in order to establish for myself what exactly makes good writing. Every year, there are tons of lists of this type but I picked the New York Times book list because of its established reputation and visibility. Although last year, I only managed to read 30 out of the 100, my experiment taught me so much that I decided to try it again this year. So far, I’ve read fiction books like Richard Ford’s Canada, Bernice McFadden’s Gathering of Waters, and Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy and non-fiction ones like The Grey Album by Kevin Young and Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon.
The books that I read last year and this year spanned a number of non-fiction topics from scientology to grief to parenthood to the African roots of Alexandre Dumas. My fiction reads were equally as diverse and encompassed short stories, poetry, novellas, and novels. Most of the books I read were incredibly well written, interesting and in some cases, simply fantastic. Although the writing styles, topics, and themes are wildly different, I found a few basic rules for good writing that were overwhelmingly present in everything I read. These include:
Rule No. 1: Find a good editor. And in some cases, a fact checker too. Having written for quite some time, I can tell you that the final piece is almost never the first draft. For me, the first draft is the outline and the final product is pulled together though copious revisions and editing. If the piece is non-fiction, a fact-checker is especially important. Good writing and good editing go hand in hand.
Rule No. 2: Write good sentences. This seems intuitive but it needs to be stated. I believe that writing a book or story is a bit like architecture, the foundation needs to be strong before you begin adding things to it. The foundation for writing is really good, well-crafted sentences. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book that exemplifies this rule. On a craft level, this book is a primer on how to write. Well-written sentences are the foundation of good writing.
Rule No. 3: If writing on a familiar topic or theme, be creative and talk about something new. Kevin Young’s The Grey Album is a perfect example of this. The book is a collection of essays on different aspects of African American artistic culture: music, acting, literature, etc. but Kevin Young introduces new ideas, new concepts throughout. Even the way the book was written and organized was fresh; its had a very improvisational jazz like feel to it. Add something to the conversation, especially if the topic is widely written about.
Rule No. 4: Feedback is critical. It’s important to find readers. And not just anyone. But someone who can give honest feedback as to what works and what does not.
Rule No: 5: Read more. I have always loved to read so this one is easy for me to follow. It was important for me to read across subject matter, tone and genre in order to understand the multiplicity of ways that people can tell stories. Fiction is just as valuable to me as non-fiction. Being a voracious reader has never let me down.
Rule No. 6: When one word will do, use one one word. This rule is perhaps the hardest for me to follow. I am the queen of long sentences. But over the years, I’ve learned to never use three words when one will do. Use adverbs sparingly. The right word will always win over the right phrase.