Writing is a craft that requires a lifetime of devoted study. To cultivate our knowledge, we ought to pore over instructive manuals, strive to attend conferences and workshops, and, of course, write relentlessly. Yet, like many crafts, much of the most crucial learning is done by studying real-life examples—by reading.
Let’s take a look at the necessity of reading in the writing life, and how to select our reads to make the most of our learning—and enjoyment.
THE CASE FOR THE READING WRITER
Writing without reading those who wrote before you is a bit like setting out to invent a flying car without a working knowledge of the technology of the last few millennia. You’d have to reinvent the wheel before you could set out to build upon it.
You need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. – Madeleine L’Engle
Perhaps you will challenge the common wisdom of your day as many great inventors—and certainly, many great artistic minds—challenged the common wisdom of their day, but you cannot challenge what you do not know.
If you set out without this knowledge, stumbling for yourself through what’s taken all of humanity thousands of years to refine, you will be lucky to create anything original, nonetheless anything of quality, in your lifetime.
If I may be so bold, it’s hard to avoid the thought that writers who write without reading are not unlike people who speak without listening. If you are not willing to participate in the conversation of life, can you expect to contribute much of value?
Stephen King put it bluntly:
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
Certainly readerhood is an essential aspect of writerhood. What, then, shall we read?
READ WHAT INTRIGUES YOU
The most obvious direction is what interests us. Our passions should largely govern what we read. The more we read what we like, the better we’ll be able to write what we like—and someone else is bound to like it, too.
READ OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE
Just as in any other area of life, it’s important step beyond our reading comfort zone, at least once in a while. Reading the odd book that’s not exactly our cup of tea serves as a sort of cross-training for the muse, and allows us to identify techniques that are universal to all storytelling and how they manifest in situations we don’t normally encounter in our own library. This applies not only to venturing into new genres, but tapping into different styles and moods as well.
There’s simply no way to write well… if you’re not reading well. ― Jennifer Egan
As a historical writer who tends toward the literary side of the spectrum, I can attest that the influence of my action-adventure writer friends has helped to whip my own work into shape within my own voice.
If you write light-hearted chick lit, read the heart-wrenching epic every now and then. If you write rapid-fire suspense, read a gently unfurling literary novel. If you write tragic literary fiction, pick up a satire. Keep in mind that not all techniques may apply to your genre or style, and consider why your own work may or may not require the same methods.
READ STUFF OF QUALITY
Quality is by far the most important factor in determining what we read. Whatever you
read, read good writing. In a workshop at a conference I attended earlier this year, Robert Benson advised the audience, “Don’t read writing by a writer who does not write as well as you do.” He elaborates in his book, Dancing on the Head of a Pen:
“[A writer] should never forget that we are all going to write under the influence of someone. Better for him if those writers are better than most. At the very least they should be the ones who make him want to lie down and take deep breaths before taking up his pen. Those are the books that will make him live, and write, more intensely. Reading anything less will not help him grow as a writer.
A direct relationship exists between the caliber of the writing you read and the caliber of the writing you make.” (pp. 102-103)
Choose your reading material wisely.
REREAD THE BEST
I confess: for years I scarcely reread at all. It can be difficult to pick up a familiar volume when there are so many yet to be read, especially when you have a memory that makes review tedious. So I squirmed a bit when I read these words of C.S. Lewis:
There is no clearer distinction between the literary and the unliterary. It is infallible. The literary man re-reads, other men simply read. … It is as if a man said he had once washed, or once slept, or once kissed his wife, or once gone for a walk. (On Stories, p. 120)
And yet he is right. As beneficial as it is to read an excellent book once, we reap the rewards exponentially each time we read it again. Even if we return to it without a conscious attention to the author’s methods (which certainly would be helpful, but it’s difficult not to become swept away in the story all over again!), we absorb a great deal simply letting the story wash over us.
Over the past year or two I’ve taken time to reread my favorite books, the ones that had a life-changing effect on me the first time. And each time I read them, I enjoy them more fully, I understand them more deeply, my soul is nourished more richly.
Time spent rereading the very best of books, those that have meant the most to us, is perhaps more valuable than reading several new novels. Such books scale greater heights than we can ascend in our first foray—and that is the sort of writing, whatever our genre or style, to which we should aspire.
Writing is a craft we should seek to hone all our lives, and our blades are sharpened whenever we read (or reread) quality stories. As we’re miring through the trenches of the writing life, a great book helps to remind us of why we press on.
And on the foundation laid by those who went before us, we have a sturdy place to leave our own mark on the world.
Tell me, dear readers: What books do you love? How have they influenced you as a writer? Have you read them over again?