Writers do not write in a vacuum. They read and write in response to their worlds which are physical, written and even virtual.
You cannot improve as a writer if you don’t regularly read and read as a writer.
Reading as a writer means paying attention to the sentence structure, vocabulary, voice and everything that you would consider as you are writing your own essay. Notice how the author constructed the piece. Was there a catchy title? Do the paragraphs have quotes? Does the author rely on a conversational tone or a more formal one?
If you enjoy reading an essay, look back over the piece to determine what you liked. Your goal is to better understand what drew you in (was it the opening line? The subject? The argument that you wish you could have verbalized last night over dinner?) Then, you have to think about how you can recreate what it was about the essay that impressed you. By identifying what you like about the essay, it will be easier to write in that fashion.
Is that plagiarism? No. Writers are always being influenced by other writers’ style, voice and subject matter. If you copy the lines or ideas that the writer used, be sure to give that author credit. Writers enter into a conversation when they publish their ideas. They expect others to respond to them.
What if you hated what you read? Well, you can learn from that too. What was it that made you dislike the piece? Identify the parts of the writing that turned you off (voice, structure, subject, audience, etc.) and keep track of those aspects. Then, avoid them like the plague!
Sometimes creative writing students have told me that they’ve stopped writing for fear of being influenced by someone else. This is a grave mistake. Of course you can be loosely influenced, but a good writing will develop his or her voice. Living in a bubble will not allow your ideas to be challenged and fully developed on the page.
I hope that you will read as much as possible – and read widely. Pick up a new author or a book on a subject that is new to you. Read as a writer and learn not only about a new subject, but also a new approach to writing.