The only way to learn to write is to write. You can’t write without an ear for the language. Do I need to spell out the logic?
How you get an ear is where convention and I agree. You read. I would also argue you watch well written shows and movies and pay attention to the dialogue. You watch plays. And preferably you read some scripts because figuring out what characters say and how to say it is important. If you are having trouble reading you listen to audio books and radio plays.
You immerse yourself as often as possible in opportunities to absorb the language until it becomes so natural, so automatic, your sentences naturally come out better.
This whole time you should be writing and experimenting because you can get the garbage phase and the listening phase going at the same time. But don’t expect to keep or even like what you produce.
Once you have a sense of how words sound best together, then it is time to start writing your patootie off until you find a sense of rhythm, pacing, poetry and story. You push through the phase that has your work sound like subconscious rip offs. You write story after story, whole novels if you need to. Keep practicing and honing the skills until you find your voice and your center.
What do I mean by center? I mean when all the pieces fit and you start to know, not think, that what your doing is good. And then you forgive yourself for those times you are wrong.
Let me explain.
First off, we all have days it looks like total crap. What was beautiful to us one day is dreadful the next. And sometimes we are are right, but a lot of times we are just not connected enough to the book to make a good call.
Those are the times you close the program and do something else. Usually there is at least one gem amongst the rubble and if you don’t find it you should stop looking till you’re in the mindset that can.
Once you find your voice, and your confidence, you still have some practice to get through, and you will still have books you need to ditch that are at least the groundwork for something better. Hence the forgiveness.
You can’t be too married to a project that doesn’t work. You either need to rip it apart to make it work, or start a new one. But none of this is possible if you can’t string a sentence together.
If you can’t make the words sound like music in your head you need more exposure to the language. You need more books, more shows, more movies, even comics. Listen to everything and everyone you come into contact with.
This is perhaps the other reason authors tell you it is important to read. I think gaining an ear for the written word is such a basic fundamental step that I almost didn’t include it on my website. It seemed too obvious.
Knowing the language is valuable to everyone, writer or not. It makes good books sing and arguments more convincing. Not everyone is interested, which is a pity. But without that very simple thing you are never going to get past the garbage phase.
I recommend reading some classics like Voltaire’s “Candide” and Dante's “Inferno” (I skipped Dickens so I can’t say much for it) as well as non-fiction because while the style is slightly different it will round out your experience and hey, you’ll learn something to.
If you are feeling particularly ambitious you may want to learn the basic grammar of another language because you would be surprised what that can teach about your own.
But really it’s an issue of quantity and quality. And though I would usually argue for being more concerned about the latter, you actually need to expose yourself to as much and as many types of works as possible.
There are limits. You’re not going to catch me reading romance, ever, period, full stop. I’m sure there are some lovely books out there for people interested in that genre. But I have no desire to find out and don’t feel like I’m missing out.
But in general, if it is remotely interesting and doesn’t put you to sleep, pick it up.
You may find that what you love at first you can’t stand once you get your groove going. Don’t sweat it. Just enjoy them while they’re fresh. It doesn’t matter if your neighbor thought the book was garbage. What matters is that you are internalizing the language.
Oh and parents, if you want your kids to write well, please read to your children. I still remember my father reading the BFG when I was five (among other books). I owe him quite a bit for helping to give me a sense of the language. It’s a favour worth passing on to your children.