YOU Should be Reading

I feel like the importance of reading if you want to be a writer can’t be over-emphasized. I feel like as much as we hear it on our writing journeys, we could always hear it one more time. So this is my contribution battle cry to any skeptical writers out there: you need to be reading.

I mentioned it in an earlier post, but I wanted to devote a whole post to it, because I’ve met an alarming number of people who want to be writers but don’t want to be readers.

In college, I had the opportunity to attend a panel of writers that included Stephen King. He had edited a collection of short stories and the other panelists were writers whose work appeared in the collection. They were all wonderful, but for the most part the other writers were younger and had thus far shorter careers than King. At one point an audience member asked if the panel had any advice for aspiring writers. The other panelists gave lengthy, heartfelt answers, but King leaned forward into the microphone and said, very quickly, “Read a lot and write a lot.”

It must have seemed pretty callous compared to the other answers, but it was my favorite. I don’t remember what the other panelists said, but I remember not only what he said, but how he said it. I could tell he was both expecting and dreading that question. I could tell he’d been asked it countless times before. And I could tell that he was used to people not believing him when he said it was god advice.

I think it was the best piece of advice I heard that night. Maybe the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard in terms of writing. But I’m constantly meeting people who don’t believe me, particularly the part about reading. The writing part seems sound enough, but the reading…they’re not so sure. I can understand their skepticism. I’m just a twentysomething with very little published writing and no published novels to my name. If they’re not going to believe Stephen King, why should they believe me?

Most of the time, their objections have to do with time. They barely have time to write; why should they take time away from THAT to read? Another objection I’ve heard is, “I write BECAUSE I don’t like what’s out there. I want to do it better!” And worst of all, I’ve had people just come out and tell me that even though they want to write, they just plain don’t enjoy reading.

All of these are excuses, and none of them are particularly good excuses. If you have time to write, you can (and should) devote some of that time to reading, yes, even if it takes time away from your writing. If you don’t like what’s out there, and you’re not willing to read, chances are you’re not going to actually do it better, and very few successful writers have made a career out of “showing up” the literary world. And as for the last one, I’ll get to that soon.

But first, why is reading necessary? Reading makes you a better person. It’s an opportunity to hone your craft by carefully looking at how other authors have built worlds, created compelling characters, used beautiful language, and all the things that YOU need to do as a writer. It humbles you. It teaches you. There are a million good reasons to read. There is exactly one reason to not read: because you don’t know how. And if you’re reading this, you do, so consider yourself lucky and go pick up a book.

So, how much should you read? I’ve been asked this before. There’s no straight formula, but if you ask that with apprehension, then however much you think is enough is probably not. I read about 50 pages a day, and I wish I could read more. Which brings me to my next, and potentially controversial point… (you’ve been warned)

I don’t think you always need to love writing in order to be a writer. I know plenty of writers who hate writing sometimes. Writing can be a constant wrestling match with the page, and it’s not unusual to have days where you don’t enjoy it. If writing is something you’re meant to do, you’ll probably feel the pull and desire again soon.

But I don’t believe you can be a writer if you don’t love reading, if you don’t look forward to cracking open a book and getting lost in the pages. I’m not saying you need to want to read everything, nor do you need to love or even finish every book you pick up. I’ve read plenty of books that I hated, and there are many genres you’ll probably never catch me reading. But I think you have to want to read despite that. You have to hope, every time you open a book, that this time, you’re going to read something amazing.

And this is probably going to be the most harsh fact of all, but if someone tells me they’re a writer and when I ask about books they like to read, they tell me they don’t read, I don’t think of them as a writer. I’ll still like them as a person. I’ll still want to hang out with them and be their friend. I’m not going to be nasty or lecture them or even respond to it or bring it up again. But in my brain, in the part where everyone I know is separated into the “writer” group and “not writer” group, they’ll be in the “not writer” group. I believe it that strongly. You can be a reader and not be a writer, but you can’t be a writer and not be a reader.

Every rule has exceptions, except for this one. There is no author, living or dead, who has been an exception, who has been able to write brilliantly without reading (or in the days before reading, sharing stories and absorbing them). You are not an exception either, and to be honest, if you were, if you could write wonderful prose or poetry but you never had to crack open a book to do so, I’d feel sorry for you. Because I can’t imagine a life without reading.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. eLPy
    Jan 22, 2014 @ 08:04:07

    This is a great point. I used to read a lot of fiction before I ever considered myself a writer or considered trying my hand at taking it seriously. Then once I made that step forward I stopped reading fiction. I thought like a lot of the people you describe; I need to be practicing and creating my own writing not reading everybody else’s.

    But then one day I realized that reading fiction will help me, not only because I don’t have an MFA or any sort of degree or continued learning in creative writing, but also because it will help me to discover what I like in a book. What I think works and what doesn’t, how a story flows, and what type of characters really engage me, are all things that reading other people’s stories show me.

    So I went back to a couple of the series I used to follow and read another installment to each. I found that I read totally differently, and not just because I was older. I read from the perspective of a writer; I paid more attention to how the story was written, how the characters were introduced and put together so-to-speak. Immediately I understood how reading would help my writing. Of the two series I had always preferred one over the other but reading them after taking on the craft of writing I could see why that was so and it remains true to this day.

    When I am working on my own piece now I am constantly remembering what it was that made a story I read work for me and what made that other one really hard to follow.

    I second your emphasis here, as a writer you absolutely must read. I will add to this and say that reading is also important when it comes to your plot and the overall story. For one of my ideas I went ahead and looked up the concept online. I wanted to see who else had or was working on anything like it; where had this idea already been taken, or hadn’t it. What I found was a part of my concept had been explored quite some time ago. In that respect I learned some history that I could quite possibly incorporate into my writing in one way or another.



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