I was recently speaking with the artist, Sam Cartman [http://www.samcartman.com/]. We were comparing notes on how we work towards being better writers and artists of one sort and another. There seemed to be much in the way of process that we used similar, if not exactly the same, words to describe for our respective genres.

One specific issue was the value of looking – in the case of the visual arts – and reading – in case of writing.  Sam, in addition to producing his own work, takes on the role of picture framer for other artists, which, he told me, has led over the years to him looking at masses of paintings. They’ve not all been good, he said, nor all bad! But they have been wide ranging and varying in style and subject – or what, for writers, I’d call form and content – and in the competence with which they were done.

Just that very act, Sam said, of looking at so much of the art form he works in, has been of great value to him as an artist. To frame a picture Sam has to make all sorts of judgements about what the picture is, and how it should be viewed, and framed.  I was for a long time, reluctant to accept the idea that something very similar is true for writers, and the act of reading.  I have no doubts now, though, that such is the case.

To say that reading ‘even’ bad writing is good for you doesn’t perhaps make the case of why that should be so: but the evidence is in the word itself. If you know – or believe – that a piece of writing is bad, or good, you are making a judgement of it, and that judgement must be in relation to some template that – rightly or wrongly, wisely or foolishly – you will have in mind for what a piece of writing could, and perhaps should be: of what you will seek to make your own writing, consciously, or unconsciously.

Like a muscle to exercise, our understanding of what we’re about when we set out to write, will, hopefully, develop the more we do it, but also the more we make judgements on what we see of it having been done.