why writers should read
In regards to the question of whether or not writers should read, there are two schools of thought. The first freely admit to not reading much themselves. They don’t have time to both read and write, they say. Any hour spent with their noses pointed at the open spine of a book is time they could spend ‘butt in chair, hands on keyboard.’ Not only that, but reading the work of other writers might, gasp, actually influence them. (The horror!)
The second type think reading is a necessity, and welcome that influence. This includes writers like Stephen King, who says (in his writing manifesto, On Writing) that reading a lot is one of the two things would-be writers must do (the other is write a lot.)
I’ll say right-off that here at The Writersaurus, I am firmly in that second camp. Unfortunately, it seems that our numbers here in camp ‘writers should read’ are dwindling, according to this article from Salon. More and more of the writers in my life claim they just don’t have time for it, including the keynote speaker at my company’s last staff day, a former employee-turned New York Times bestselling author. I won’t name names, but she confided to the microphone that she had long ago traded in her own bookshelf for a *Netflix subscription.
Accusations of hypocrisy aside, I feel bad for these writers. How can they hope to improve if they don’t study the masters of their craft? Professional violinists can’t afford to quit practicing after getting a gig with a symphony – neither can writers quit reading after they get that first book published.
Just in case you need some convincing, here are three reasons writers need to read.
reason writers should read # 1: deliberate reading helps writers learn
There’s a common view that, unlike painting or playing an instrument, writing is a skill that you either have or don’t have. Stephen King and Jack Kerouac emerged from the womb genius fully formed, the only thing preventing them from writing Carrie and One the Road being the inability to hold a pencil due to under-developed hands.
This attitude is extremely damaging. It leaves some writers believing that their stories are perfect- plot, character, and writing flaws be-damned, and others thinking that trying to learn from reading means they lack that crucial talent in the first place.
Newsflash: no matter how good you are at writing now, you can always improve your skills. Each new skill mastered opens the door to a new layer of nuance and technique that you weren’t even aware existed a few months ago.
Reading helps you discover these new tools, and see them used in-action. To go back to the painting metaphor, if human artists had never studied and learned from the techniques of others, we’d still be using rocks to carve stick figures into cave walls.
reason writers should read #2:reading inspires writing
One of the greatest things about deliberate reading is that it makes you want to write more. It lights a fire under your butt. You see a technique that was used well, and you want to see if you can make it work in your own writing. Conversely, you might see a wasted opportunity, or something that didn’t work out quite so well, and want to see if you can do it better.
Anything that gets you writing is a great thing.
reason writers should read #3: reading makes writing more fluent
Have you ever tried learning a second language?
Now imagine trying to do so by only speaking it yourself, and never by listening to anyone else. Sounds hard, right? Just think of the pronunciation errors. That’s because you’d be missing out on a whole different learning experience. Listening to someone speak activates totally different sections of the brain, while utilizing and strengthening neurons and pathways that help you speak.
The same thing happens with writing. By reading, you absorb the rhythm of the written word. Which means that when you do sit down to write, you’ll be both faster and better at it. You’ll just have a feel for how words fit together on the page.
Now that we’ve gone over the benefits of deliberate reading, be on the lookout for our posts on what deliberate reading is and how to read better in order to improve your writing.
Interested in specific examples of deliberate reading? Check out our narrative analysis series, where we look into the narrative strengths and weaknesses of stories like Outlander, Better Call Saul, Doctor Who, and others in order to become better writers.
*Note: when I refer to reading, I generally mean consuming stories in any form, including television, cinema, and audio formats. However, I believe that if you’re going to be a writer, at least some of the stories you consume should be in the format of the written word. Let me put it this way – it’s difficult to compose a classical symphony when you only listen to death metal via your iPod. Ya dig?