Why Writers Must Read

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”—Stephen King
Photo credit: o5com on Flickr
Long before I knew I was a writer, I was an avid reader. I was that kid in school who sat in class with a book on her lap and had her nose between pages during lunch.

So it always amazed me when someone would tell me they didn’t like to read. Even in elementary school, I gaped at peers who said reading was boring—I didn’t understand them. How could reading be boring? There’s a book for everyone out there, surely you could find something that interested you.

Most of us that enjoy reading will say books are an escape—a chance to slip into someone else’s life, someone else’s world and go on an adventure with them. A good book will make you laugh and cry and feel as though you’re right there with the characters, like the real world is the one within the pages, not the one around you.

For writers, though, reading is even more important than that.

You see, there are only two ways for artists to improve their craft—practice and study the work of other artists. For writers, that means you improve by writing and reading.

But there has to be a balance. You can only improve so much if all you ever do is write—without studying published books out there, you can’t learn about what works or doesn’t work. You aren’t exposing yourself to other voices, other styles, other plots and characters and worlds that would in turn influence your writing. Without reading fresh material, your writing will plateau and it doesn’t matter how much practice you put in, you will stop improving.

On the flip side, if all you ever do is read without putting your pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard), you will learn plenty about craft and styles and voices, but without applying them yourself and putting in on paper, you can’t start your journey as a writer.

Writers need to write and read all the time. Read good books, bad books, popular books, obscure books, classics and trashy novels and whatever catches your eye because there is something to be learned from any book that sits on the shelf—even those you despise. Then, when you’re done reading, you need to sit down and write.

In short, reading gives us the tools to write. Writing without reading is like trying to build a sculpture without clay, or create a painting without paint. Reading isn’t just a hobby for writers—it’s a necessity.

Don’t have the time to read? Make time. Like writing, even five minutes a day of reading is better than nothing, and if you’re serious about improving your craft, then it’s not really an option.

How important do YOU think reading is for a writer? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Reading isn't just a hobby for writers—it's a necessity. (Click to tweet)
Don't have the time to read? Make time. If you're serious about becoming a writer, it's not an option. (Click to tweet

62 comments:

Daniel Swensen said...

I think it's indispensable. When I talk to an aspiring writer who says they don't read because they "don't have time," or worse, because "all novels now are crap," I have a really difficult time taking them seriously. Basically, what they're telling me is that they're trying to be part of a market they don't care about enough to engage with.

I wouldn't buy meat from a vegetarian butcher who never learned to use a knife, why would I buy a book by an author who never reads and thinks their own genre is unworthy of their time?


Another one I hear all too often is the writer who doesn't want to be
"tainted" by other writers' ideas. Sorry, but you're doing it wrong.

Ava Jae said...

I like your comparison to a butcher there, it really added to your point. It seems a little ridiculous that a writer doesn't like to read because "all new novels now are crap." If that's true, then why bother writing? 

I think being "tainted" by other writers' ideas is a fear a lot of new writers have...but it's an unfounded fear. We all learn from each other and every book we read certainly influences us in some way, but it's not tainting, it's growth. 

Daniel Swensen said...

I think a lot of it has to do with how people who don't write (or are just starting out) mythologize their image of the writer. They like the idea of being rewarded for their creativity, their original thoughts, their strongly-held and eloquently-expressed beliefs, and that's about as far as they've gotten. They don't get inspired by other people's work, but they want their work to inspire others. It's this one-way street that just can't work, IMO. This isn't universal by any means, but I've seen it more than once.

Daniel Swensen said...

Also, I have to post this here because it's so painfully true:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9fc-crEFDw

Ava Jae said...

Hmm, that's an interesting point, but probably true in many cases (especially for new writers). I think there are also cases where writers are inspired by other people's work, and that inspiration leads to fear of being "tainted" as we mentioned earlier, because they worry it may influence them too much so that they end up nearly copying (also something, I imagine, that is much more prevalent with new writers). 

Daniel Swensen said...

That certainly could be. I have known a couple of aspiring fantasy writers who have read Lord of the Rings... and that's about it. I would hope one would be a bit more excited about your chosen genre than that.

Ava Jae said...

Oh my...yes, I would hope so...

Susankayequinn said...

It's hugely important, but I do admit to struggling with it. Mostly with enjoyable fiction writing, even though it is building my craft. I most easily read non-fiction while I'm writing (which is all the time), but I'm slowly getting better at getting the fiction in there too. 
Great post! :)

Ava Jae said...

I think we all go through different stages--there was a time when I read mostly non-fiction (lots of writing craft books) and a few isolated novels here and there. It wasn't really until this year that I made it a point to really dive into my genre, and now I wonder why I didn't do it earlier. :)

Alyssa said...

A writer who doesn't read is like a chef who doesn't know what food tastes like.  :D

Ava Jae said...

Ooo, I really like that one. Great analogy! 

Alyssa said...

Thank you very much.  ^_^

Jennifer Bennett said...

I was going to say something else, but I'll just 'barrow' Alyssa's. J/k becasue that would plagiarism!  But seriously, she said it all...

South paw said...

I'm up there with agreeing that is it important. And it's good to read in the different genres too.

Ava Jae said...

It was a great analogy, I must say. 

Ava Jae said...

Agreed! Reading across genres can give you really great exposure to various styles.

Tina Moss said...

Read, read, read! You're 100% right. A writer who doesn't read is a tight rope walker without a tight rope!

Robert French said...

You just jogged a memory. I used to sit in class with a book on my lap, reading when I should have been listen to the drone of the teacher's voice. I even got caned for it once (it was that kind of school). Happy days.

Ava Jae said...

Loving these analogies! :D

Ava Jae said...

Heh, that sounds happy (up until the caning part). Not sure whether or not I should apologize for jogging that kind of memory... :D

Michael Lewis said...

Itsa dilemma! Gotta read, gotta write, only 24 hours in the day. Who needs to sleep?

Angela Quarles said...

I'm with you! My mind just can't wrap itself around someone who doesn't like reading. I have a huge TBR pile and have several going at once and read every day unless something truly strange happens. If a guy says he doesn't read, that's a big black mark for me...

Ava Jae said...

It's a difficult balance, but a necessary one, in my opinion. If you miss a day or two it's not the end of the world, but you certainly benefit from consistently reading and writing. 

Ava Jae said...

You'd think writers reading is a no-brainer but...sadly, there are exceptions. 

Laurapauling said...

Extremely important. So much is soaked in that we don't realize. I understand going brief periods while focusing on work. But I still try and read every night and if I hit a great book, I read the whole night. It's a necessary part. I've been reading way more than I used to and I've seen a difference in my writing.

Krista said...

Oh I think it is important for a lot of reasons. For me - the more I read the more I want to write. So reading is a good motivation for me.

Brahm (alfred lives here) said...

Agreed, excellent analogy!

Brahm (alfred lives here) said...

I totally agree, and feel the same experience --- I have always had my head in a book, thru good times and bad, and find it fuels thinking and new interests and caring about the world beyond me... and writing. And eating junk food, but that may be just me....

Grace Peterson said...

When I was a kid I didn't like to read and I was mystified by my sister's love of books. I had an anxiety disorder [and maybe a few other disorders] that made concentration difficult. I'm not a scientist but this might explain why some people are opposed to reading. Their brains aren't conducive to understanding the written word. Now, that I'm a 50-something, I'm a reader and a writer and I agree wholeheartedly with your post. Reading is the best continuing education a writer can have. 

Ava Jae said...

Thankfully, reading is a lot healthier than eating junk food. :D

Ava Jae said...

I heard that there was a disorder that didn't allow certain people to picture things that they read, and in those cases (which, in my opinion, is tragic) I understand the difficulty. Nonetheless, for writers as you said, the best education is in reading.

Susan McNerney said...

Absolutely dead on. I know so many writers who don't read, and act as if being asked to read is some sort of imposition. My writing has definitely improved because of the reading I do. In fact, when I get stuck, I reach for a novel. Even if the book has nothing to do with anything I'm writing, walking through another plot, another set of characters inevitably shakes something loose.

I know so many writers who say they don't read. Often they say this as if reading is some sort of extra thing silly people do who don't write.  They're like people who go to a dinner party wearing earplugs and still expect everyone else to be interested in their chatter.

Ava Jae said...

The way I see it, as long as you're reading or writing you're improving--but you can only improve so much if you do only one. Not only that, but something about reading a great book really makes me want to write. :) 

J.P. Kurzitza said...

I'm sorry that I have to be the one to break up this love fest - and you'll probably all hate me and tell me I'm "one of those people" - but I believe this topic to be the biggest myth in all of writing history (to dramatic?).

Reading will not make you a better writer.  Done.  Finis.  If you get anything other than entertainment or escapism out of reading, it'll be a stronger vocabulary, but a stronger vocab does not a writer make.  You want to learn style, and voice, and pace, and character development, and yada, yada, then take a course or two.  But even then, this won't guarantee success.

Since we all love analogies, here's mine.  I'm from Canada, so let's talk hockey.  I can teach you to skate; I can teach you to pass; I can teach you to shoot; I CANNOT teach you to score.  No mater how many other players you watch, or how many tips they give you, or how many games you watch, you either have the God given ability to score, or not.  It's not something that suddenly "comes" after watching X amount of players and games, or something that suddenly begins to improve the more you watch.  Same with reading.  If you're going to get anything out of it, it's other people's ideas, and bastardize them into your own "original" story.

The part you wrote about "Without reading fresh material, your writing will
plateau and it doesn’t matter how much practice you put in, you will stop improving." - WRONG.  To be a better hockey player, you practice.  To be a better chef, you practice.  To be a better butcher, you practice (I think...).  You're the writer!  You come up with your own fresh material, not a regurgitation of something you once read somewhere.

Let's look at it simply.  A writer writes.  The essence of the writer is putting forth words on a page.  When we cease to do this, we are not partaking in the act that describes us as an entity.  Take away reading from a writer... that's OK, he's not a reader, he's a writer.  He'll keep writing and producing his own original stories and ideas.

All things being equal, a writer needs to write more than he reads, or he ceases to be a writer.

Now I'm done.

stevepoling said...

When I started writing, I noticed that I was reading differently.

Leigh said...

Very true. I've noticed that since I've started to get more serious about my writing, I have been looking at what I read in a different way. No longer am I just following the story, I am now looking at the way it is written, how the characters interact, how the setting is described...everything. Sometimes this takes away from the enjoyment, but I find it has become the norm.

I am more of a music nut, and listen almost all day. I find that listening to music helps open up the ducts of creativity so that your ideas can come tumbling out. I also enjoy watching some television series as their ability to grow and develop characters is quite useful in understanding how to give your characters a "feel".

Ferb WL said...

It depends on personal interest. nowadays, movies are a lot and I think they must be interest in movies rather than a book. If a person force to read by someone there will be a serious problem that they might not want to read books any more. As well I'm not really like reads but read when required.

Ava Jae said...

I love watching movies and I'm certainly not suggesting you force anyone to read, but for writers I think it's important that we read often. 

Ava Jae said...

Reading analytically (rather than just reading for entertainment) is a great way to get even more out of whatever you read. I've found that lately I've been paying more attention to voice and things that I like from the books I read, and I know it's helped me get some great ideas as to how to play with voice and style. 

I'm funny when it comes to music--I love music and I often listen to music when I write, but sometimes (and this happens mostly before I really get into what I'm writing or when I'm trying to brainstorm) I find that music can become distracting so I sadly have to turn it off. Of course, once I really get into the writing again, the music often comes back on. :D

Ava Jae said...

I really like that analogy--I hadn't ever connected the two before, but I definitely see the comparison. Having awareness when you read is a huge asset to any writer's arsenal. 

Ava Jae said...

Firstly, I don't hate you at all. You're perfectly entitled to disagree with me and I think it was pretty brave of you to speak up and voice your opinion, so for that, thank you. 

Despite that though, although I agree on some points, I'm largely going to have to disagree with you. 

Let's start with what I agree with--a writer writes and the most important thing for a writer to do is just that. I absolutely agree that it's most important for a writer to write and the best way to improve is to practice by putting words on a page (after all, you can read all you want but you won't improve if you don't try it yourself). So on that point, I agree. 

However, I still think it's important for writers to read. The point of reading isn't to get plot ideas to slap into your writing and I'm certainly not suggesting that we all read and spit out what we've just read--that wouldn't be much help to anyone. Instead, reading can be inspirational and educational. If you take note of things you love (maybe it's the voice? The three-dimensionality of the antagonist? A specific line of prose?) and identify what it is about it that resonates with you, you can then apply that technique to your own writing, which in turn could help you improve.

On the flip side, if you notice things you don't like in a book, identifying what specifically you don't like about it can be a good reminder of what not to do in your WIP. 

If we're using the hockey analogy, it goes without saying that the most important piece is that the players practice--that they go out into the rink and do drills and work on getting those scores and practice passing and checking and so on and so forth until they've honed their skills. Practice, practice, practice. 

But hockey players watch other hockey games for a reason, and it isn't only because they love the sport--there's something to be learned from observing the best of the best and even something to be learned from watching others who aren't as skilled. Techniques, do's and don't and learning from the mistakes (and victories) of others can be incredibly useful for anyone in any field. 

Of course, this is just my opinion and as I said before, you're perfectly entitled to disagree with me. I suppose we'll just have to agree to disagree. :) 

Ava Jae said...

I've made it a point to read much more of my genre this year and I know I've benefited greatly from it, and not just because I have tons of new books to look forward to (although that's a pretty big bonus ^_^). 

Daniel Swensen said...

And yet we never see filmmakers say "I make films, but I never watch them because you can't learn anything from them" or architects say "I like to design buildings, but I never look at anyone else's work." Orson Welles watched Stagecoach forty times while making Citizen Kane.

The idea that reading someone else's work inevitably leads to regurgitation of that work is pretty fallacious, as is the idea that studying the craft of others must somehow detract or distract from practicing one's own. The idea that you can't learn by deconstructing the work of others seems absurd to me.

Your lofty proclamations of "Done," "Finis" and "WRONG" aside -- I don't hate you, but I don't find your argument credible either. I'm sure it works for you, and that's great, but it's far from axiomatic IMO.

sgissy said...

I found your website from Michael Scott's FB page. 

Ava Jae said...

Awesome! Thanks for stopping by! ^_^

Sgchriswriter said...

Great post!  Not sure I could say it a whole lot better so will be doing post and directing here.  Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think it's hard to to control our self not to be influenced by others writing. Even now I'm influenced by your writing about "secret ingredients, you". That's why there is quote "man shaped by man".

So, I think we have to put more weight on great writing while noting the bad writing.

Nice to meet you in here!

Jeco

Ava Jae said...

Thank you so much! Definitely give me a link to the post when you write it. :)

Ferb WL said...

Yeh, your right, I meant the person forced to read might not like to read. unless, they want to read themselves. Reading is a tool used to improve toward the next level of education. I agreed.

Ava Jae said...

Yes, I wouldn't ever suggest forcing someone to read as that'd take the enjoyment out of it entirely, it's just especially important for writers to read often. 

Affiliate Marketing said...

my first language wasn't English, so whenever I'm trying to write a blog is hard for me.  Trying to look out for the grammar problem and does the sentence make sense.
Trying to improve it badly but this article helps me a lot. 
Thank you so much Ava

Ava Jae said...

Reading a language you're trying to learn (such as English) can certainly help improve your understanding of the language. I wish you the best!

Sidney Peck said...

Man, I needed to read this.  Before I became a full-time, sole caregiver for my mom I was a voracious reader.  Almost as soon as I began taking care of her, I stopped reading.  Oh, I read, but compared to my previous habits, there was no comparison. Mom died in the fall of 2009, and even though I have more time, I still am not reading like I used to.  You're so right on, Ava, and starting tonight, I'm going to finally pick up Stephen King's "Duma Key" that's been sitting on my self since 2008 and READ.  BTW, he is my favorite living author, and I don't think it's a coincidence that I was drawn to your site and this particular post tonight...

Ava Jae said...

Oh wow, I'm so glad I was able to encourage you to do read more! It's so important for writers to read often and truth be told, it's a pretty enjoyable way to learn. :) 

Enjoy Duma Key

TNeal said...

I think it was Steven King in "On Writing" who said that reading junk can be helpful. You come away from a bad novel and say, "I can at least write as well as that." I've always enjoyed stories but heard them on audio books more than read them. Even the classics like "The Count of Monte Cristo" I heard before I read. My wife introduced me and my son to some great stories because, from the time she knew the difference between an A and a C, she's read books. I find good books and reading can be caught. I'm evidence of that. Good piece of writing, Ava Jae!

Ava Jae said...

I'm thoroughly convinced that any sort of reading can help you improve as a writer one way or another--it just depends on what you choose to take from it. 

I never really caught on to audio books, but that's largely due to a slightly short attention span...I often find my mind wandering when I just sit and listen to a book rather than read it for myself. Silly quirk, I suppose. :) 
Thanks so much! ^_^

TNeal said...

Sitting and listening. I couldn't do that either. I listen to stories while driving, walking the dog, loading and unloading the dishwasher, etc. My best conversations take place either moving (walk, drive) or eating (always a wonderful experience). Hard to sit for long. Typing words involves some movement so I can sit and write (with lots of get up time for coffee). :-)

Ava Jae said...

I know exactly what you mean. Besides, who really sits still nowadays anyway? :D

Candace Chatman said...

I think reading is tremendously important.  If I hadn't continued to read I would think that writing was supposed to be the stuff of Baby Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High  OR it was supposed to read like Hemingway and Toni Morrison- two vastly different levels of writing.  Thank goodness I love to read and continue to do so.  It makes my feel like my voice is acceptable as well as accessible. 

Ava Jae said...

Reading is such a fantastic way to broaden our experience of both imagination and other voices out there. It's one pleasure that truly never gets old. 

RaiscaraAvalon said...

I'm still amazed at people who don't like to read. I read all the time! I go nuts when I have nothing to read lol. And I do think it's very important for writers to read...how else are they going to find out what readers like?

Ava Jae said...

I can't quite wrap my head around people who don't like to read either--although I like the quote that says people who don't like to read just haven't found the right book. :)

For writers though, there's no excuse. If you want to improve your writing and be a good writer, you must read. 

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