At Susan Hill's Books That Built Me the other week week she said, 'the best way to learn to be a writer is to read books by writers far better than you'll ever be'. As a teenager, fixed on a literary calling, she went to the library in search of a book which might tell her how to be a writer and found Woolf's A Writer's Diary. It seems to have done the trick - before Hill was out of her teens she had published her first novel, reviewed by Elizabeth Jane Howard in Vogue, no less, since when she's written and published fifty six books.
So, if I've learned anything from the (nearly) two years of hosting The Books That Built Me, it's that inside every great writer is a careful reader - their craft honed on careful study of those 'books by better writers'.
One sees Susan Hill's admiration for Woolf in her precise, economic prose - the reader is never led by the hand, but has to dart behind the author, catching signs and clues in a conspiracy of reader and writer. Think of how she effortlessly conjures a disquieting, malevolent atmosphere, and then keeps on turning the screw. It is there in I'm the King of the Castle or Strange Meeting as much as it is in her ghost stories, her craft honed by a lifelong passion for Dickens' dank courtyards, misty Kentish marshlands, Marshalsea Prison, the flat, grey Lincolnshire wolds.
So, the best advice for would-be writers is to read, and read well. It doesn't necessarily mean excluding all but canonical texts, restricting oneself to a diet of Woolf, Proust, and Eliots George and Thomas. It does mean reading 'best in class' - if you aspire to domestic noir, read Gone Girl and Before I Go To Sleep but also try Daniel Deronda and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (for the latter, look no further than Sam Baker's 'The Woman Who Ran', published next month); if crime fiction is your thing, read Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allen Poe as well as Ruth Rendell and Ian Rankin.
If you want to write, read.