You’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating because it’s true and incontestable: One of the most important things you can do as a writer is read.

That’s why I always ask the writers I coach to read short stories by authors they admire, and to try new ones. Reading for influence helps us find our voice and style. It reveals that rules can be broken. Many students express surprise when they read short stories: “I didn’t know you could do that!” They’re talking about switching perspectives or writing horrific things or going beyond writing what you know. Most important of all, though, is that examining the mechanics of a story—that is, going beyond whether or not we liked it—helps us understand what good writing is and how it works.

For an assignment, one of my students wrote a list of things she observed while reading Alice Munro’s short stories. I asked her if I could share it with you because it’s excellent advice for writing well. The following are the best tips I know for writing, and apply to any style or author. I have it printed out. When I write, it can be my checklist.

How to Win the Nobel Prize

(or, the stories of Alice Munro)

  1. Don’t get caught up in literary movements or names. Be real. Be honest.
  2. Be simple: don’t over-complicate the plot. Life is complicated enough as it is.
  3. Explore the unsaid more than the said. The pull of the story often lies in unexpressed emotions.
  4. Stay small: you don’t have to create fantastic worlds or wizard characters; you don’t have to have a green-eyed heroine; you don’t have to make up another language. Everyday conflicts, both internal and external, speak to the heart of what it means to be human.
  5. Dig deep into what makes people do what they do and think what they think and say what they say. We may never truly be able to understand why people do what they do, but it’s intriguing to try to find out.
  6. Find the rhythm in the sentences and the words and play them like quiet music.
  7. Be surprising with the ordinary. Push characters to do things that we might all be afraid to do or say.
  8. Be geographically specific, but in doing so, be universal. The same stories that take place in small towns are played out on stages all over the world.
  9. Find the weakness in a character and make us love him/her for it.
  10. Leave the reader wanting more. No story is ever truly finished.

Any other tips to add? What is the best thing you’ve learned about writing from reading?

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