Why Writers Should Read

mark twain readingYou’ve heard the advice often enough: To be a writer, you should write, because that’s how you get better as a writer. But you should also read as much as you can.

For those of us who never met a school reading assignment they didn’t like (Lynne raises her hand), this is the best news ever. But those of us who regarded their college-prep reading list with deep suspicion are going to be less than thrilled.

Really, guys, it’s not as awful as it sounds. Reading shouldn’t have to be a chore. For one thing, you’re not in school anymore – so there’s no time limit for finishing a book, no research paper requirement, and no test for comprehension at the end. No one’s going to give you a bad grade if you don’t finish the book, either. So if it’s not to your taste, bail out and try another one.

For another thing, writers read books differently than students or literary critics do. Students, by and large, are looking for what the teacher told them to find. Literary critics are looking to pick the story apart, or to find some sort of meta-meaning that justifies the time they’re going to spend crafting an essay that may or may not actually be about the book.

Writers, on the other hand, are craftsmen looking at another craftsman’s handiwork. They want to know what makes the story tick. How does the story begin, and why did the author choose to start there? How does the author handle such techniques as flashbacks? What about point of view? Why did the author pick this particular narrative voice, and does it enhance the story? How do the characters convey emotion – or do they? And if they don’t, why not? Does the author invent any words or phrases, and if so, why? Most of all, what can I learn from this book that I can steal – or rather, borrow – for use in my own work?

If you write in a particular genre, then you probably ought to be reading books by other authors in your genre. If you picked your genre because you love reading those kinds of books, then you’re a step ahead. But even so, you can use your pleasure reading as research. Let’s say you write cozy mysteries. What makes a mystery a cozy? What’s the typical setting, the usual point of view, the number of characters? How convoluted is the plot? How many red herrings do other authors include in their cozy mysteries?

I don’t mean to say that you have to take copious notes and deconstruct every sentence. Just keep an eye out and notice things. When I was preparing to write Seized, I had already read several urban fantasy novels. Most of them were written in first person, most of the scenes were set in urban areas, and nearly all of the characters were modern people with a magical quirk or two. It appeared to be a requirement that at least one character be a shapeshifter – and if he was a hot guy, even better. I ended up incorporating all of those characteristics in my book.

So read in your genre. But don’t stop there – read outside your comfort zone, too. And yes, that may even mean dusting off the college-prep reading list that gave you such fits in high school. But read those classics as a writer. Pick a book that’s more or less in your genre and look for how the classics handled the conventions. Or pick a book that’s not in your genre and see if there’s anything in it that you can, uh, appropriate.

And you might be pleasantly surprised. Now that you have another decade (or two or three or…) of living under your belt, those stories you thought were boring or pretentious or impenetrable when you were sixteen may resonate with you today.

I hear you: “But I don’t have time to read!” Stay tuned – I’ll talk about that next week.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “Why Writers Should Read”

  1. I’m one of those that says I don’t have time to read. So when i do it’s with a purpose. And yes, as a writer I read differently than I did when reading was just for pleasure. I miss that. I have made a point of reading outside my genre lately. It has reinforced fo me that there a re certain genres that still do not interest e at all. I have also had a few pleasant surprises (yes, you, J. D. Mader).

    One reason I don’t read more is that I feel it is not work and so it induces guilt. I need to change that attitude.

  2. Excellent advice. I’m one of those who don’t like to stray too far out of my own genres, but just the other day I picked up a freebie crime thriller, and I could not put it down. I was halfway through before I realized that the guy was a master at tightening the screws to the tension. While I caught a few editorial errors, overall the book was great, and I was glad I had taken a chance on it. You never know what you might learn, and what you might enjoy!

    1. Exactly, Melissa. I have to say that I’ve read more outside my favored genres since becoming an indie than I had for years beforehand. It’s because I keep picking up books written by other indies. 🙂

  3. Are there writers that don’t like to read? Wow! I thought those two pursuits went hand in hand. I love to read and can’t find enough hours to enjoy all the novels on my Kindle. The device is bursting at its digital seams! I beta read, plus have book-club obligations. Sometimes, it does feel like a chore–but when I become engrossed in a story, it makes the time spent worthwhile.

  4. Brilliant. Thank you, Lynne. I agree that reading is vital part of an author’s education, and I make time for it every day. When I was a little sponge, I would read favorite books over and over, puzzling out HOW a writer was able to make me feel empathy for a serial killer, craft a twist ending nobody saw coming but made perfect sense, employ the right word at the right time. And also WHY some books stuck and some were abandoned. I forget sometimes to read out of my genre, so I appreciate the nudge. I would have missed out on some great reading adventures and opportunities to learn if I’d stayed in my comfort zone.

  5. Absolutely. Think also about the effect your reading will have on what you’re writing. I swear there is a ‘hangover effect’ from reading beautiful prose, snarky, funny prose, dark prose, poetry–or, heaven forbid, reading uninspired dreck. It alters your word choices, mood, small stylistic things…in other words, read the good stuff, things that will inspire you, buoy you, even subconsciously.

    1. Ruth, I’ve heard some writers say that the “hangover” is why they avoid reading, particularly when they’re working on something. I think that’s more likely to happen when you’re still in the process of finding your own voice as a writer.

      I mean, more experienced authors do it, too, but they call it “borrowing from the best.” 😉

  6. I can’t imagine a day without reading. I don’t have a favourite genre, though there are some I avoid, having tried them and failed to find them enjoyable. I was the kid who was always being told to ‘take your nose out of that book and go outside and play’ and nothing’s changed much since then. I have always believed to be a writer you need to be a reader first. Of course, maybe if I didn’t spend so much time reading, I’d actually get more written!

  7. Great post, Lynne. Reading the masters in the genre you write = learning = fun = why the heck aren’t you doing it? (and yes, I agree on the reading outside your genre, as well. You learn so much more that way 🙂 )

  8. I’ve always had a fairly eclectic reading list, and so I guess it naturally follows that I write whatever takes my fancy, but revisiting the classics is an excellent idea for all writers, Lynne. My complaint these days is that there isn’t enough time in the day. Great post, Lynne.

  9. I love a post about reading because reading is one of my absolute favourite things in the whole world. Reading sets me free and takes me away. I honestly think I’d rather lose my hearing than my sight. And I believe it doesn’t matter what you read so long as you read something for pleasure. We should be encouraging primary school children to read comics instead of the boring stuff they’re given. -smacks self- And now I’ll stop…

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