Common advice for writers is this: If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to be a writer. Is this true?
That advice, paraphrased, comes from Stephen King’s wonderful book, On Writing. (I highly recommend this book, even if you aren’t a fan of King’s brand of psychological horror.)
And, it is advice that is often handed down by literature and writing instructors who, more often than you might imagine, are presented with a written work that is obviously the product of someone who has not, in fact, spent much time reading. Or, perhaps it is better to say this: They haven’t spent much time considering what they read.
Writers Must Read: The Obvious Reasons
It isn’t just Mr. King or weary writing instructors who give this advice about why writers must read. Practically every writer I’ve ever read about will say they are reading nearly constantly, and they point to that ongoing reading as a key element to their ongoing personal productivity. It isn’t just NEW writers or would-be writers who need to read, and read widely: it is necessary for all of us, regardless of our sales ranking on Amazon.
Here are a few of the benefits that writers enjoy because they are constant readers:
- Reading a wide variety of literature helps us learn the rules and technical aspects of writing. I don’t know about you, but I’ve absorbed more about the finer details of punctuation, spelling, syntax, grammar, and vocabulary from reading than I ever did from generic exercises in English class. Reading provides the writer’s mind with context and application of “the rules” and is so much more efficient and effective. There are hundreds of words, or ways to construct a sentence, or ideas about how to visually represent the story to best communicate with a reader that I have had imbedded into my writing because of my reading.
- Reading helps us learn to understand what readers expect in a written story, and how to best tell our stories in a way that will resonate with readers. In the book, Wired For Story, Lisa Cron gives detail to this idea, but the brief take away point is this: Readers have expectations for the book in their hands, and while there isn’t a formula for meeting every reader’s expectations, there ARE some pitfalls to avoid. Reading helps us internalize this information, organically: it is easier to imagine ourselves as a reader of our own book or story, if we are very well-practiced at actually being on the reading end of the equation.
- In other words, reading helps us identify what works, and what doesn’t. And, because we begin to see what works and what doesn’t work in someone else’s book or essay or story, we can begin to weed out the negatives and amplify the positives in our own work. This work of being a reader translates into the active work of being a writer.
- Writers must read in order to get a deeper, more fully-developed understanding of language. Think of it as the master chef who widely samples cuisine outside of his immediate area of expertise: different flavor combinations, different ingredients, different presentations of the meal. We do the same thing when we read the way someone else approaches the problem of using words on a page to tell a story. We may not go back to our kitchen and do things the exact same way, but this new knowledge will help us find more complexity in our own recipes.
- Reading widely is a key source of artistic and creative inspiration. Reading, not just familiar genres or comfortable topics, can help fill the creative well with new ideas, new circumstances, new situations. It can trigger the abiding image or moment of clarity that will propel us deep into our next project, or the project that will stew for ten years before it’s ready for the world. Either way, reading is a key component to ongoing creativity.
- Writers must read because to bestow the benefits of literature on other readers is an act of perpetuating all that has come before. I know. This sounds lofty. “I just want to write a play, or story, or essay, not change the world.” Perhaps. But literature is meaningful when it promotes empathy, understanding, and knowledge. Literature is powerful in breaking down the walls that separate us from the “other”. In order to accomplish this for others, we have to have experienced that sort of transformation, for ourselves. In order to move readers, we have to have been moved. The writer who doesn’t read is like the health coach who eats only Twinkies and never exercises: his words don’t find fertile ground in the hearts and minds of his trainees.
Other Reasons Writers Must Read
The reasons above are fairly common reasons. You’ve probably seen a similar list, before. But there are two other aspects of reading that I think are sometimes overlooked.
First, there is the problem of narrow reading. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to define narrow reading in two ways: there are narrow readers who stick only to one genre or one type of book, and there are narrow readers who think they can get all of the benefits for their own writing by reading books, articles, and blogs ABOUT writing.
The narrow reader who is genre-specific is short-changing themselves. Yes, if you want to write a specific KIND of book, it is necessary to be familiar with the rules, expectations, and “big red flags” for that KIND of writing. However, limiting yourself to a very narrow reading list is limiting to your creative development. If you “never, ever, under any circumstance read [fiction, non-fiction, science-fiction, romance, short stories, self-help books, poetry]” then you are short-changing yourself, and your eventual readers.
The other kind of narrow reader is the one who thinks that learning about the craft and process of writing is the same as learning about the impact and experience of reading. This is like the auto-mechanic who refuses to ride in a car: he may be able to fix some problems, but he can’t tell if the car is actually running right.
Reading narrowly is better than not reading at all, but it can drastically hamper the writer’s development. Narrow reading can add to a basic understanding of writing, but there are many ways to solve the myriad problems writers face. There is no one formula that works, and even if there is a formula, great writing comes when the formula is bent, twisted, and re-worked, and learning how to do this comes from seeing how other writers have done it. Reading widely gives the writer a whole host of tools and tricks and abilities with which to solve their own problems and create new paths into the literary forest.
Writers Must Read, Not Just Watch
And all of this brings me to the last cautionary tale: The writer who says, “I get all of the benefits of reading from watching high-quality movies and TV shows.”
I am not one to argue that there are ZERO benefits to watching TV or movies. I think there are some shows and movies that are great entertainment and distraction. There is even benefit to having a mindless, guilty-pleasure sort of show that you enjoy.(Something we all need, in moderation.) And I’ve watched plenty of documentary or informational/historical shows that were great for helping me increase my own understanding and knowledge.
Even better than the mindless TV, the higher-quality shows and movies—the ones with really good writing behind them—do have some positive impact on the writer’s creativity. Great writing in TV and Movies can help us understand storytelling, story arcs, dialogue, etc.
But, this benefit is not the same as reading literature. It is related, but not congruent.
Writing a script (TV, movie, theatrical production) is not the same as writing a story in the form of a book, novel, essay, or short story. The behind-the-scenes process is different, the format is different, and the end result is different. Studying movies, shows, and scripts is essential if you want to write for film, but only partially helpful to the writer who wants to put their stories and ideas into text.
Go to the bookstore and pick up a copy of a play or movie script. There will be a small section with scripts in most book stores. (You’ll have to look closely. It’s likely even smaller than the poetry section.)
The purpose of a movie or TV script is very, very different than the purpose of a novel or memoir. The script is written for the director and the actors. It is NOT written for the casual movie watcher. It isn’t just that the words are formatted in a very standardized way, but the entire script is not written as a document that is supposed to “connect with the reader”.
There is a reason that printed and bound versions of scripts are not featured on the bestseller lists, even if the movie or TV show or play is an award-winner with a rabid following: The script is a tool toward a product that is a fusion of visual and audio stimulus. A script, by itself, is not a good way to tell a story. It is the anticipation of a well-told story.
So You Want to be a Writer
Having a story in your head is different than effectively telling that story out loud. Verbal storytelling is an art form. Really good verbal storytellers practice, refine, get feedback, and adjust, just like writers of stories have to do. (Even your uncle Ted, who could really “spin a yarn,” engaged in the practice-feedback-revision loop…that’s why he told the same stories over and over again: he was naturally tuned into revision and refining.)
Telling a story visually (through film, video, art) is different from telling a story verbally, and both are different from telling a story through the written word.
Storytelling through text, whether in fiction or non-fiction, requires us to translate the story in our head into symbols, and those symbols are then meant to re-create the story world in the minds and hearts and emotional moment of the reader. There is great benefit in studying other modes of coaxing emotion and feeling and reaction from the listener/watcher, but those lessons learned are not enough. The joke that works from the comedy stage does not necessarily translate into an effective joke in your novel. The tear-jerking oratory from the mother who has lost everything in the movie, probably can’t just be transcribed into the novelization of the script.
Reading often, reading widely, and reading with an intentional, deep-digging mindset is crucial to our development as writers of novels, stories, essays, and memoirs.
Next week, I’ll talk more about “deep reading.”
Until then, happy writing!
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