Sorry But You Can’t Learn to Write Via Osmosis

Saying otherwise is a bald-faced lie

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Medium is an amazing platform. Anyone can publish practically anything and someone will read it. Probably. The stuff that does best here tend to be articles about making obscene amounts of money and those preaching self-improvement, with one often related to the other.

The people writing such stories tend to repeat variations on the same themes ad nauseam as though Medium was their own personal echo chamber. I don’t hate the player, but I do lament that truly good, original writing is often drowned out by a sea of self-help gurus shouting about their 5 tips for an amazing life or the 3 ways to have a kick-ass morning or some other hack they're regurgitating from someone else.

These stories are almost always more self-referential than instructional, and though I have no empirical evidence, I think it’s pretty clear the only person whose life is being markedly improved by the story is the writer’s. Writing about making money on Medium is a surefire way to make money on Medium.

Clearly I have opinions about all of this. I’ve never really felt inclined to share them before because it wasn’t worth the effort. Everything has an opportunity cost; I’d rather write about Star Wars or Schitt’s Creek. I avoid the worst hucksters, but even people I do follow aren’t immune to these tactics.

In the past day I’ve read two popular articles talking about how reading alone can make one a great writer. Not reading and writing – reading, on its own, as a form of writing practice. In place of actual writing.

I can’t stay quiet anymore.

There’s only one way to become a better writer, people.

People tend to lionize Stephen King around these parts (I get it – I love him too), so let me put it in a language you’ll understand; from King’s On Writing:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. (emphasis mine)

And again, because he considers it such an important lesson:

You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.

Obviously reading is important. But suggesting that reading on its own can somehow make you a writer is horseshit.

I used to watch the NBA religiously when I was a teenager. All those hours of passive consumption got me no closer to my ill-conceived notion of playing professional ball. I would’ve been better served practicing (which, to be fair, wouldn’t have overcome my innate clumsiness or turtle-like lateral speed – some dreams are merely that).

Writing seems different because on some level, you already know how to do it. Hell, you’re probably already doing it. Is it any good? Taste is subjective, but if most of your “experience” is a ton of reading, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that your writing probably sucks.

The only way to get better at anything is through practice. Practice takes time, and worse, effort. It’s easier to sit and read. I get it – reading is fun! I love books and would happily spend all day disappearing into the pages of one. But if I have to choose one over the other, I always choose to write. I am a writer; how about you?

So be honest now – are you writing? Regularly: daily, or at least several times a week? If so, congrats – you’re a writer. If not, you’re something else: dreamer, procrastinator, aspiring writer, wannabe. No judgement here – I’ve been all of those things too. But at some point, writers stop making excuses and do the work.

Reading is powerful. It can help improve your craft. But it is no substitute for writing.

Writers write.

Wannabes chase distractions.

Which are you?

EIC of FanFare. Writes about culture, film, TV. Popular Prose column at Writing Cooperative. Top Writer

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store