Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Read!! (Here’s Why)

pin confuscius readIt’s not like anyone ever has to twist my arm to get me to read. In fact, left to my own devices, I’d probably spend at least a few hours each day with my nose in a book. However, Real Life doesn’t always easily accommodate large blocks of reading time. There is almost always something more pressing that needs doing – something that seems more important – and so reading can fall off the radar.

But, reading is critical for writers. Mandatory. Non-negotiable.

You’ve heard the advice a million times: If you want to write, read. It makes sense, you suppose; but have you ever wondered why it makes sense – why reading is such an important part of becoming a writer?

When you read, it’s like taking an immersion class in the language of story and literature. And like any immersion class, the more you expose yourself to that language, the better you understand it and the more fluent you become.

By reading other writers, you develop an instinctive sense of how story works. You begin to see the universal patterns in story structure and notice how different authors use language in different ways. The more time you spend reading, the easier it becomes to recognize the various craft elements for what they are. Even more importantly, you start to realize when these elements are working, and when they are not.

You can hardly ask for a better education.

This is why it’s so important for you, as a writer, to read – because it’s your only opportunity to learn by example, and examples are powerful teaching tools. Reading shows, instead of telling. Stories don’t have to explain themselves. They don’t preach or dictate. They simply present themselves to you, and leave it to you to figure things out.

Some will tell you to be careful what you read – to only read Good Writing, or to never/always read books from the genre you write. I don’t think there need to be any hard and fast rules about reading. I’ve learned a ton about what not to do by reading subpar novels. And I’m constantly learning from the masters in my preferred genre and cross-pollinating ideas from authors who write in other genres.

I’m not sure you can ever go wrong reading. Just do it. Read. Read as much and as often as you can. Immerse yourself in story. It will make you a better writer.
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition – a long-form post on writing and the writing life – and/orintroduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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61 thoughts on “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Read!! (Here’s Why)

  1. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Read!! (Here’s Why) – pearliwryts

  2. Over the past few months my writing has improved – a tad bit 😉 -just becasue I devoted a little more time to reading. True this post!

    • Excellent! Curious – do you feel like you improved a particular aspect or element of your writing, or just an overall improvement?

      And, what kinds of reading do you feel has been most beneficial?

      • My expression, word choice and point of view has improved.Over the past few months, I have read fiction – a mix of classics, contemporary, drama, poetry, sci-fi, romance and two books specifically on writing (Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott and If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland). I feel there has to be a balance while reading and an intentional act of picking a book out of our comfort zone just to widen our perspective.
        Reading blog posts has also been a plus for me.
        Another activity that has improved my writing is reviewing books that I read on Goodreads (something I’ve never done before) just to see how well I’m able to put to words, the experiences and feelings conjured up from the books I read. It’s also a great way to get connected to people who love to read and write.

    • I hear you! I’m constantly being lured away from whatever I’m doing so that I can read “just a few more pages.” I suppose I could have worse vices. 😉

  3. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Read!! (Here’s Why) | Charles Hoyle Van Nuys

  4. Great post! I’ve just read two YA novels…current YA novels because I wanted to see how the characters are portrayed. At first, I wasn’t sure I could even get through the first novel. And then, it took hold. I became fascinated at how well the author controlled the movement of plot and character. Kept everything in its place and whoa! I learned something.

    Headlines: OLD DOG LEARNS NEW TRICKS!

    You are so right. Reading places one in a quiet sphere of an imagined world full of voices, traffic, crowds, machinery, smells of all kinds, colors of every hue. And as we lose ourselves in that “other” world, don’t we also on occasion, sometimes, find ourselves.

    Thank you for the wonderful post.

    • Best headline ever! 🙂 Love it. ❤

      I can relate. I've trudged through a few not-so-great/didn't-grab-me-immediately reads just to see how the author handled certain aspects of character or plot. Sometimes, I was trying to study what NOT to do, but even that's helpful. It makes me feel good that I can now more easily articulate WHY I abandon a story or a novel. I'm not stuck just saying, "I don't know … something just didn't click." anymore. Now I can get my head around where the holes were.

      And – yes! – reading does place us in a quiet place where we can step into another world and another life. I was just thinking about that this morning – how important it is to have a way to step outside of the repetitive parts of our lives and enjoy adventure and exploration through reading. SO important.

      Thanks for coming by!

    • Wearing my marketer hat, I agree that there’s some value in studying the marketplace and seeing who else is in the game. That said, it can be dangerous for any writer (but, particularly new writers) to put too much weight on what their competition is doing. It can take a long time to get into print, and the marketplace is notoriously mercurial … so, if you’re writing based on today’s market, you might be out of “style” by the time you’re ready to pitch. I like to mix it up – read some of what’s “hot” now, but balance that by reading the classics – the stories that have stood the test of time.

      • I also love a good thesaurus. 🙂 And, the built-in dictionary in the Kindle is one of the ebook reader’s most endearing features. I love learning new words, but I don’t enjoy reading a book that is so chock full of unfamiliar vocabulary that it slows my reading down. Introducing me to new language – thumbs up. Trying to make me feel dumb by drowning me in twenty-five cent words – thumbs down.
        😉

  5. All true. You’ve got to read the right stuff, however—not just any stuff. Reading over a lifetime creates not only a huge inner world of places you will, over that time, end up referring to automatically and unselfconsciously in both rhythm and sound in your own work, but you learn through reading the truly great writers how different writers have learned themselves—structurally—how to tell stories. The latter is essential to writing that in any way makes today any sense to do. Too many, unfortunately, mostly due to mediocre teachers, mediocre reading, and the correspondingly mediocre books to which teachers of all sorts sadly too often refer, are out of innocent ignorance mired in half-baked notions of “plot” and “character” and so on; they get no further than that—tattered remnants of Aristotle’s “Poetics” from 2,500 years ago (or: “How to Write a Blockbuster Play like “‘Oedipus Rex'”) which, in terms of novel writing, could be argued to be relevant up to maybe around the time of Jane Austen who is fabulous—but fabulous for her place and her time, not ours. But to continue to write today according to these so-called norms from that point on as many believe to be proper and are instructed to do, it’s all just to have cast oneself off as driftwood and dead weight, ipso facto obsolescence, pointless and irrelevant and irresponsible to boot, a sheer waste of spirit and breath, as it were—but nonetheless absolutely vital to know this stuff from primary sources, both critically and narratively, in your bones. Writers have done much since then. Kafka. David Markson. Djuna Barnes. Some of DFW. Thomas Bernhard. Kate Braverman. And others of course.

    • I believe that an open mind and a taste for diversity are key to good reading habits. I like to mix fiction and non-fiction, classics and contemporary, and stories from all genres and even all “levels” of writing. You can learn as much from discovering what you don’t like as you can from figuring out what you do like. (And, likewise, what works and what doesn’t.) I’m also a big believer in reading what you enjoy. Not every book has to be the Great American Novel. Sometimes, you just want a fun read. Sometimes, you don’t want to come face to face with the Big Questions of life, you just want to be entertained.

      For me, that’s half the adventure – discovering new authors and exploring their works, even when it’s not something that I’d immediately consider as “my kind of book.” I’ve found some of my favorite writers that way.

      Thanks for being part of the conversation!

      • Sure, I guess it has much to do with how one reads and why. I mean, to switch things up, I watch all sorts of movies on Netflix. Trash. Sci-fi. Classics. Edgy. Avant-garde. Westerns. non-U.S. made, etc. I think that if I were a filmmaker, I’d be a bit more particular. In fact, I generally can’t stand movies that seek to answer or respond to those so-called Big Questions of life—and usually discover these things much better handled in flicks whose concerns don’t seem to be these at all. Of course, I wish Netflix had a much broader and deeper range than it does. So much of our viewing depends these days on it, I think its bound to bring the whole filmic bar way, way down in the long run—which is too bad.

  6. Pingback: Repost: “Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Read!! (Here’s Why)” | Siobhan the Hack

  7. YES! I couldn’t agree more! I have learned so much from writing – both things that work and things that don’t – which I might not have picked up on otherwise. It’s the perfect way to learn, and it’s so much fun, too, so who can argue? 🙂

  8. Pingback: Short and Sweet Advice for Writers: Read!! (Here’s Why) | JCU // Creative Writing Workshop

  9. I love finding the most obscure things to read. Sometimes they’re gold. Sometimes you end up with an author trying to shove eight genres into the first chapter. But it’s always fun.

    • Obscure and even experimental can be fun and inspiring. I’ve finally learned, however, that if something isn’t working for me (i.e., “eight genres into the first chapter”), it’s okay for me to jump ship. I’m willing to try anything, but I try not to waste too much time on things I’m not LOVING. If it’s not working, and I can learn from why it’s not working, I call it good enough and move on. 😉

      Thanks for coming by. Always nice to see you.

  10. Loved this post but it also reinforces my frustration in no longer having easy access to books. I’m now retired in the Philippines and it’s difficult to find my required reading here. If I have a book shipped here then it costs a small fortune. Ereaders don’t cut it for me and some of the old classics aren’t available in electronic format anyway. Oh for the days of my library card back in the UK. I guess I will just have to make do with writing in sight of the beautiful Philippines beaches 😃

    • Oh, Stephen. I feel so badly for you – bookless in the Philippines! That’s no fun at all. I’m not sure I could live without my local library. I hear you about ereaders. I have a Kindle, but we have a love/hate relationship. Somehow, it’s just not the same. Still, if I were in your situation, I think I’d learn to like it a little more. 😉

      Here’s hoping that you find new and creative ways to get your reading fix. Sending you good book juju!

    • Stephen at least we share some similar sentiment, in Kenya books are taxed;buying a book cost a fortune, but i thank God i am able to access some books from the US embassy Reference center where i have been a member since 2012. But the urge to read and to expand my knowledge and writing skills force me to walk in the streets to find books. when luck is on my side i get what i want at a cheeper price. That seems to me like a golden opportunity. I wish you well buddy and please don’t give up

    • You’re so right, Cynthia. Reading DOES make me feel better about being alive in this “hairy” world. I find comfort and solace in books. They let me step out of the rat race for a while, and they show me other worlds and other possibilities that give me perspective on my own life and world. Such a gift.

      Thanks for reminding me of that. 🙂

  11. I really needed this, that is a kinda kick up the backside. Yes, I know what you say is true and makes a lot of sense but last year I didn’t do any reading and my writing has taken a back seat. This year I promised myself that less TV and navel gazing and more reading and daily writing. So thanks for this.

    • “… less TV and navel gazing and more reading and daily writing.”
      Sounds like an excellent plan to me. 🙂
      I’ve cut way back on my TV consumption lately. It took a little adjustment since I’d fallen into the habit of watching “a little something” before bed, but I’ve been retraining myself to expect to read instead, and I’m getting better about leaving the boob tube OFF.

      Good luck with your plan!

  12. It’s so hard to imagine an aspiring writer who hates reading! Reading and writing definitely go hand in hand. I agree that reading a large range of books from different genres/styles/quality helps in a huge way.

    • It’s almost impossible for me to wrap my head around a would-be writer who doesn’t like to read. That seems to me to be akin to, say, a would-be Olympic swim champion who doesn’t like the water. Crazy.

      Happy reading in all the genres/qualities/styles!

  13. I personally believe without reading the widest range of literature it would be almost impossible to find your own voice in writing. Beside I can’t imagine a world without books. From the time I could walk I’ve always had a book in my hand. My mother even once said ‘I think it’s attached to her hand’. I don’t think an I-pad is at all the same. Books have an enticing smell and I love Libraries with all their shelves. Reading and writing in my humble opinion should never be separated.

    • “Reading and writing … should never be separated.”
      Yes!
      I do think that they are two halves of the same practice. I’m also a big lover of libraries. I find that lately I’ve been making excuses to visit my local library more than usual. I find such comfort among the shelves – just meandering with no particular aim in mind. Sometimes, I find the best books that way!
      🙂

      • Right said. Your blog is awesome. When I came to know about it the first thing I did was to follow, I really liked your posts. Keep sharing such posts in future also which will inspire us to read and of-course write. I hope you will also like my blog: http://www.nteeli.wordpress.com

  14. I do not agree. Many have a natural talent. Immersing yourself in the works of others is akin to plagiarism of style. Our society is rife with imitation and lacks imagination. New styles can be born out of daring to be your own writer. The earliest writers didn’t have anyone else to read and learn from. Writing comes from within not without. Not discouraging reading but do not agree that writers need it to become better.

    • Thanks for sharing your opinion. We will have to agree to disagree on this one.

      There may be such a thing as a natural talent for writing, but will amount to nothing if not nurtured and trained. Reading is, without question, one of the best ways to nurture and train natural talent. In the realm of writing, reading is how we learn by example; and it does not need to result in “plagiarism of style.” In fact, many well-respected writers urge young writers to begin their education by emulating favorite authors. This is how we learn. It does not mean that a new and untried writer has nothing to say or lacks imagination. Imitation is a testing ground. It provides a writer with a place to start, to grab a foothold from which to begin the journey into his or her own, unique voice.

      As for assuming that the “earliest writers” didn’t have anyone to learn from, I suppose that might be true if you are talking about the absolute beginnings of written language; but I think you’d be hard pressed to find any successful writers who do not consider themselves in great debt to other writers (either classical or contemporary). I have not come across any writers guilty of such hubris.

      Writing may “come from within,” as you put it; but it is also influenced greatly by everything around the writer – the world, life experience, and – yes – the writing of others.

  15. Jamie, i resolved this year to read extensively, i am on spree, buying books from the streets and bookstores in Nairobi, I have immersed myself in reading them. i can attest to what you have written; i now find it easy to write my blog twice a week. Yes Jamie, I have realized Examples are powerful teaching tools. I hope when you get time you can have a look at my posts and advice me on what you think I can improve. Thanks for always taking your time to educate me and the whole community of wordpress.

    • I am so glad that you have the time and resources to indulge your love of reading. It is also wonderful to hear that this immersion into the words of others has inspired and eased your own writing. There is a flow that I think can only be reached by a consistent practice of both reading and writing.

      I’m afraid I’m unable to put time into blog critiques, but if you have a specific question you’d like answered, please feel free drop me a line (jamie@suddenlymarketing.com), and I’ll do my best to address my answer via a blog post.

      Thanks for being here and for sharing your experience!

  16. Pingback: Writing the boring: How to write transitional material between novel chapters | Write on the World

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