Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Good Writers Need To Read

Regular blog contributor Patrick Dilloway runs a blog called Every Other Writer Has A Blog...Why Can't I?  The other day he did a post that is located here.  In the post, Patrick said he had reached a road block of sorts and that he would take a hiatus from his work-in-progress to read some books in the genre in which he is writing.

Now, in the comments, Rusty Webb questioned Patrick's "motivation".  He wanted to know specifically
"I wonder what you think you’ll get from reading a bunch of genre stuff?"

This got me to thinking.  I know that Stephen King says that writers should read a lot.  I'm not going to quote him any further or go back to any of his source material.  The fact is that I think this too even if I had never read Mr. King's words.  Here is why.

Good writers need to read. Great writers need to read a lot and jot down ideas in response to what they read. I do it...I keep a list of words that I see on a notepad.  I think of how certain writers organize chapters from Faulkner's point-of-views to Vonnegut's one-page chapters to George R.R. Martin's cliffhangers.

And just as Mutt indicated in his post that I linked above, as a writer, you’ll find yourself hitting plateaus and roadblocks when you aren’t regularly reading. You’ll find that you actually run out of words, if you’re not regularly being challenged through reading new things. This is an important step to becoming a good writer.  I don't think I'm just spewing B.S. here either.  A car runs on fuel and words are the fuel that writers consume.

I admit...sometimes I may be guilty of over-analyzing things.  But I don't care.  It's just how my brain functions.  And this post is not about "meaning".  Many people read books to finish them. This is not always necessary. Read books or articles just to read them — to glean new ideas, to learn new words, to fall back in love with language.

So yeah, if you find yourself at an impasse with your writing, I think you should take a break.  Read a novel or two and see how that helps you.  As Tyrion Lannister has stated, "A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone, John Snow."  And George is absolutely right on the money.

Please keep in mind that writing is separate from publishing.  I'm not talking about publishing.  I'm sure there are plenty of examples of people who publish and who write and who make money.  But they are most likely terrible writers with a lot of money.  It's true folks :( Not everything that makes money is genius.  You can egg me later please.  So if you want to write well...please read.  It will make your prose better.


  1. Back in my post-University, no day job years, when I was writing my second novel, I was actually pretentious enough to go on a book-starvation diet, and I read no books at all for 18 months. My rationale was that I did not want to get subconsciously influenced by another writer's style. I wanted the novel to be all me, undiluted and raw from the source.

    (Yep. I was THAT pretentious. Give me a break, it was over a decade ago.)

    Anyway the point is that by the end of that 18 months I literally felt like a starving man. I also felt like I'd lost sight of the horizon, and like I was far from home with no reference points. I was so hungry for fiction that I fell off the wagon big style and gorged myself on every book I could lay my hands on for days on end.

    It was a valuable lesson, well learned. Artistically, you can't thrive in a vaccuum. You need stimulation and inspiration. And personally I need the security of reading a novel. I'm addicted to the process.

    Just like I always have to be working on something, I always have to be reading something.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more. I've been a voracious reader since I can remember and it's that love of reading that moved me to write.

    Unconsciously, while I was reading over those many years, I was absorbing how stories are structured and what writers do to heighten suspense, allow the reader to rest after tense scenes or just plain and simple evoke deep emotion. All of that knowledge helped me to be a better writer.

    Nowadays, I read as both writer and reader which also helps with my own writing.

  3. Yep, I agree! I've learnt so much from reading. I'm more inclined to read than spend thousands doing an MFA or MA in creative writing, etc. I have mates who have spent thousands on such programmes and it doesn't guarantee anything.

    And jotting down ideas / watching movies can also generate leads. But above all, nothing beats a well written novel.

  4. Yeah, there's this other Rusty Webb running around the internet asking stupid questions. If I ever catch that guy...

    I agree with you. My question to Rogue seemed so much more nuanced at the time I asked it.

  5. I've always loved reading, but lately I've made a conscious effort to read a lot more than usual. I agree with you that reading is very important for a writer. I learn so much from it. Sometimes I purposely set out to examine how a particular writer dealt with certain aspects of writing.

  6. I went though a similar phase as what Neil mentioned above. Oh, what funny ideas we writers have sometimes.

    I tried something new this year and am keeping a book journal. I consume books so quickly that often I'd never really process what I'd just read. But writing out a few thoughts about each book I read in my little journal has forced me to examine why I did or didn't like something, and in turn - in theory - it helps me better examine my own writing.

  7. I've already done a post on this topic, so, instead of writing out a big, long comment, I'm just going to give you the post link:

    It was my very second blog post, so most people have probably never seen it.

  8. "Read" is probably the #2 thing I say most often in crits. #1 is how to format dialog. Especially with amateurs you can tell when they aren't experienced in reading because the stories are hackneyed or just plain awful. Reading good books makes you better. It's like how in sports athletes watch footage of old games or matches or whatever to learn about opponents or mistakes they've made in the past. That helps them to improve the next time around.

  9. I agree with Rogue Mutt on this one! Reading great books makes a good writer a better writer. And being critical of a book is even better. That is actually why I started reviewing books- in order to understand where authors were really screwing up. But mostly reading books that are in your genre and are just of great quality is the best teacher a writer can ever get. Good post!

  10. Right on, Mike. When I get stuck, I pick up a book I love, open it to a random page, and just read.

    Generally, I highlight sentences/phrases I really like and figure out what makes them work so well. I also keep a file of great "word finds".

    I've heard many writers say they can't read for pleasure since their internal critic is always on. I don't find that to be an issue. I can overlook the small stuff, and If it's really bad, I just put it down. No biggie.

    P.S. I love Tyrion's quote! Plus, I just love Tyrion, so yeah... (Almost done A Storm of Swords) :D

  11. There's a reason why most artist study their field's "masters". Not to go and rip them off but to appreciate their technique and learn new ways to incorporate what they're learning.

  12. Sometimes I feel like the "must-read" list is so tall and scary, I may never find time to write or sleep.

    But, I've discovered a wonderful thing. The library. Get out all the lovely books you've heard of and read the first chapter. You only have to finish the ones you either ADORE orelse DEEM IMPORTANT for whatever reason. (Twilight? How does it work? Let me see!)

    Even if you don't finish a book, having read the chapter at least gave you a sample of it, so when it comes up in conversation, you have some familiarity.

    As for your crit advice, well, that's a whole 'nother thing. I hate when people say "don't worry about the grammar! I just want big picture!" and it's obviously a first-first draft without even the barest of revision. UGH.