Read Like a Writer

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“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

“Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.”

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, most fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read.”

on-writingThe quotations above are from favorite book on writing (aptly named), On Writing by Stephen King. Like him or not, he is certainly successful, and it seems that success comes from hard work and dedication.

I daresay that most (all?) writers were readers first. I suppose this could be one of those chicken and egg things if you delved deeply enough; however, for simplicity’s sake, we will say that reading preceded writing. Today I want to stress not only the importance of reading but also the importance of reading widely.

I am going to start with the first quotation: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

I cannot express how much truth there is to these statements. Writing is hard work, contrary to the romanticized ideal of a guy with a beret sitting in a Parisian coffee shop daydreaming about the next bestseller. Being a writer is sitting at the keyboard and pushing keys in rapid succession trying to convey into words the sometimes jumbled picture that is floating around in your brain. It’s living off Snickers bars for a while because you have a deadline and no time to cook actual food. It’s reading in the bathroom instead of Facebooking because you need to finish that next chapter. It’s lugging a book or forty with you in your suitcase when you go on vacation so that you don’t run out of things to read. It’s typing with your thumbs on your smartphone while waiting for the elevator or while commuting on the train so you can get your thousand words in that day. It’s talking to people when you get stuck. It’s staring at the blank page in abject fear that no ideas will come. Writing isn’t easy. Okay, maybe it is. Let me rephrase. GOOD writing isn’t easy. But some things (like reading) can help to make it pleasurable.

Next, let’s talk time. King writes, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” I didn’t publish anything (self-published or small press) until I quit watching TV and movies and used that time to read and write. Voraciously. Likewise, I didn’t start editing and finish grad school until I quit playing World of Warcraft (which I love and miss). I knew those things were taking something away from me that I had so precious little of: time. I have a long way to go have any modicum of success, but I am at least on the right path facing the right direction thanks to King’s advice. (I have to also extend my appreciation to both David Coe and John Hartness as well. David told me to “finish the damn book” and John told me “get your ass in the chair and write” not too terribly long ago. I nodded and said, “Okay.”)

So, why? Why is reading so important to writing?

According to King, “Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.”

Writing a lot has been covered many times before, so I want to focus on reading a lot.

You need to read several things: books that are amazing and written by masters, contemporary works, and books outside your genre.

First, read the masters. Okay, I get it. You may not be a fan of Dickens or Melville, but you should find some classics that you enjoy. Read them; devour them. Look at how they weave a story, the complexity of their characters, and how they use language. With the masters, how they say something is sometimes more revealing than what they say. They can convey things off the page simply by how the words are arranged, by the structure of the lines and the juxtaposition of the letters in tandem with the meaning of the words the collected letters create. They’re masters for a reason. Consume them.

Next, read the new releases. Look to see what is trending in the market. I don’t mean subject matter here, necessarily. I mean the way the book is written. Is the trend becoming to use present tense or is past still preferred? First person point of view or third? Length? Pacing? Love triangles or independent characters? If you’re self-publishing, even look at things as mundane as the fonts, margins, section breaks, etc. Reading and examining these things to find out what’s going on in the current market doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to write to the market trends, but you should at least be aware of them. Knowledge is power, folks.

Also, read things that aren’t in the genre you’re writing. You can pull skills and tricks from anything. Read science fiction or fantasy to learn world building, romance to learn character chemistry, dystopian to learn conflict, and so on. Even non-fiction teaches you lessons—especially history. Gosh, there’s tons that can be gleaned from reading a well-written history piece.

Finally, don’t lose the love of storytelling. King writes, “I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read.” Don’t start reading just because you want to be a writer. Read because you love to read, but pay attention when you read. Watch the story unfold, but look past the main action down into the alleyways and side streets. Smell the drying ink and feel the weight of the page.

Read like a writer and you will get better.

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5 comments to Read Like a Writer

  • sagablessed

    Excellent post. I agree with it all .

  • Sagablessed – thank you!

  • Razziecat

    YES to all of this! 😀

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  • ummohs14

    Definitely true. I’ve always wished I could write a novel. I was reading up to 3 books a week and enjoying every bit of it when suddenly it dawned on me that if I continue at this pace, I will never write anything. So I quit reading cold turkey. It was super hard…and boring! After my brain had eaten away at all the reserves of book fuel (about a month), I was finally able to make myself write. Now I have a YA Sci-fi/fantasy novel under my belt. I couldn’t have done it without all the reading beforehand and without the forced withdrawal while writing.