Writing My Novel: 7 Ways Reading Makes Better Writing

boy_reading_book The first day of a composition class, I ask my students a simple question:  “Who in here likes to read?”

I consider the inquiry a success if I have two people raise their hands.  Most of the time all I get are a few sneers, blank stares, and no hands in the air.

I ask them follow-up questions, too.  I ask them about other media besides just books.  Do they read anything on the Internet other than Facebook statuses?  Blogs? Maybe magazine articles?  What about newspapers?  The answer stays the same.  They don’t read much of anything.

As sad as it is, I take as being a good segue to discuss my number one rule of writing: “Good writers are good readers.”  I tell my students that it doesn’t necessarily matter what they read, just as long as they do.  I’m a firm believer in that, too.  I don’t care if you read blogs, newspapers, scholarly essays, magazines, dimestore romance novels, or literary classics.

The simple act of reading on a regular basis is guaranteed to enhance your writing.  Or your money back.

Read Literally Anything.

Exposure is the name of the game.  If you’re reading, then you’re being exposed to writing.  The more voraciously you read, the more likely you are to be exposed to a variety of styles of writing, which will in turn be burned into your subconscious like you were staring at the sun, thus making your writing that much stronger.

In my mind, there are different reasons to read, each with its own lesson to be taught

1. For Entertainment.

Let no one tell you that just reading for the fun of it is wrong.  There is no feeling in the world like settling in with a good book, and there are still lessons to be learned from reading for pure joy.  For instance, you learn exactly what readers are looking for.  Why did you pick that particular book?  There is always a reason readers choose one book over another, even if it for pure entertainment.  Reading like a bookstore browser will give you insight on what makes stories fun to read, and if you pay attention, you can incorporate some of that into your own work.

2. For the Style.

Depending on what I’m currently working on, I read different authors.  When I’m writing something quirky, I’ll pick up J.K. Rowling.  When I want something succinct and down-to-earth, I read Stephen King.  Every author has his or her own style, and while it’s never a good idea to downright copy syntax from famous authors—be yourself as a writer!—there are a lot of good lessons to learn.

For instance, in The Stand has a passage that describes an exploding house.  Stephen King could have said:

“The home erupted into flame, hurling debris around Stuart and Frannie as they were knocked to the curb as everything they worked for burned to ash.”

And it would have worked.  However, what he wrote is better because it tells me everything I need to know much more clearly:

“And then the house blew up behind them.”

By seeing how successful writers deal with details, our subconscious writerly minds pick up on it.  If you’re writing crime fiction, then what you learn from J.K. Rowling will be nearly useless.  But if you read Evanovich, you’re probably going to get a glimpse at what sells.

3. For the Themes.

Not every book is written with symbolism in mind.  But nearly every book has some, even franchises like Star Wars novels deal with philosophical issues in their narratives.  They might stack of books 2all be the same issues because of the formula, but they’re there.  And to find out how authors deal with these themes—heavy-handedly, with grace, deliberately, unintentionally—is another reason to read.

You can’t read Steinbeck without wondering about propaganda and the migrant workers’ plight and how they interact.  And there’s something like that in your fiction,too.  You just might have to read a few more books to get at how to work on it.

4. For the Genre.

Similar to style, one can’t read science fiction exclusively and expect to churn out a bestselling mystery novel.  It’s possible, but you’ll most likely have a mystery in space or that deals with technology.  Most genres have conventions in them—which leads to tropes and clichés—that only being well-versed in that genre will help you identify and avoid in your own writing.

The only way to avoid a Mary Sue/Marty Stu protagonist is to be able to recognize one when you see it.  And you can’t do that if you go in blind, never having been exposed to one before. You need to be able to recognize ways to see a plot twist coming if that’s your typical dénouement, so that you can find ways to keep your readers from doing the same thing.

5. For the Medium.

I tell my students that they can’t write academic essays if they’ve never read any.  You have to read exactly what you’re writing.  You can’t be a blogger without reading other blogs.  You can’t write for magazines without reading the magazines you’re pitching to.  You can’t tweet if you don’t understand what you can say in 140 characters.  It’s all about understanding the media in which you have chosen to communicate, and if you’re not reading what you’re writing, then you might as well just give up.

When I started blogging, I was wordy and used a lot of really long, intricately worded (or so I thought) paragraphs.  I learned from reading World of Matticus and We Fly Spitfires that I had a long way to go with my own site.

And that was okay.  I learned my lesson because I read these guys day in and day out.

Right now, I’m writing a lot of short stories, so I’m reading a lot of short stories.  In fact, I just read John Scalzi’s “After the Coup” on my iPhone’s iBooks app.  Novels, as much as I love them, don’t help me when I need to be concise and round in 5k or fewer words.  But reading them sure did help during my 86k marathon.

6. For the Words.

I read anything I can get my hands on.  If I’m eating at my dining room table alone, and I don’t have my iPhone with me or a magazine or a book, I pick up a box and read what’s on it.  Seriously.  The more words I ingest, the more I can regurgitate them.  Word-a-Day calendars and emails are great, but they’re easy to forget.  The only way to truly bolster your vocabulary is to see words used regularly in context so that you get a feel for them and what they do.  In isolation, words are useless.  The more you read, the larger your vocabulary will naturally become.  It will just happen; don’t try to force it.

7. For the Ideas.

I will never—never!—advocate plagiarism, the blatant theft of ideas from another writer.  However, I do advocate reading a lot and becoming inspired by it.  I firmly believe there are no new stories left to be told, but I think there are some fantastic new ways to tell old ones.  And reading as much as possible allows writers to see what’s already been done and fashion new ways around that particular narrative.  You can get nuggets of ideas from other writers, and that’s okay.

YoungReaders If reading Twilight gave you the idea for a vampire book where the main character is a clumsy, just-moved-to-town guy who falls in love with an abusive yet beautiful werewolf, you’re probably cutting it a little close to the bone.  That’s like copy/pasting someone else’s essay and using Word’s synonym replacer and thinking you’re free and clear.

However, if reading Twilight gave you the idea for a paranormal romance that espouses the ideals of love beyond the grave and dealing with a parent’s divorce and subsequent remarriage, that’s okay.  You have to be able to make these nuggets of ideas and inspiration yours without stepping on any toes.

It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s a valid way to be a writer.  Some people want to be the next Stephen King or Jo Rowling or Stephenie Meyer or whoever else.  And that’s okay.  We all have authors we look up to, and while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, the blatant theft of their ideas is not.  In fact, it can ruin your professional career forever.  Walk the line carefully.

If You’re Not Reading, You’re Failing as a Writer

It’s that simple.  If you can’t or won’t put in the effort and time that it takes to be a good reader, then you certainly don’t have the chops to make it as a writer.  And not just a professionally published, working writer, either.  It takes a lot of reading to even become a competent amateur.

For the same reason that trade skills have always worked with apprentices and why many jobs have shadowing days, if you’re not exposed to the nuts and bolts and nitty-gritty of your chosen field, you can never hope to succeed in it.  If you’re not well-versed in the product you hope to produce, how can  you hope to produce it?  Do you think the makers of Coke drank only water?  Do carpenters look at clouds and see how to build houses?  No.  They put in their time, study their craft, and make the best end-product they can based on their observations.

Writing is no different.  Your end product is something intended to be read.  Being a writer and being a reader is not mutually exclusive.  They go hand in hand.  And the sooner everyone understands that, the fewer chaff novels, bad blogs, and sad excuses for freshman composition papers we’ll all have to deal with.

Comments

  1. elleseven

    Great post. I’m going to make my highschool daughters read it too.
    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who reads cereal boxes and salad dressings. I even read all the shampoo bottles in the tub.

  2. I think it’s sad to see how many people don’t read very much out of inherited prejudices, where you insist on labelling literature as “good” or “bad”. If there’s one thing I’m happy about with my childhood, it is the fact that my parents had such a relaxed look on reading. I could read anything, as long as I read. One day I read Dostojevskij, the next day I read horror short stories or comic albums. Everything was OK. We read for lust and passion. That’s how we defined oursleves as a family. We had bookshelves everywhere – even at the toilet, where crime fiction and comic books had a special place.

    I’ve carried this heritage with me through life, trying to convey it to my children. Never condemning any literature genre for being “bad”. Books can be good reads for very different reasons. Sometimes you want a good laugh for an hour. Sometimes you need something that shakes you up and changes your perspective on life. There are good reasons to read both!

    If more people had this approach to reading, I think we would see a way higher level on the skills of writing. Because yes, yes and yes – the ability to write is born out of reading.

    • My parents were the same way. I never had them tell me I couldn’t read something. I had teachers try and tell me things were above my level, and I all but laughed in their faces. My parents never really censored anything from me, though they tried harder with music and movies than books, for which I’m grateful. They fostered the love of the written word in me, and I’m not much for authority, maybe they recognized if they told me I couldn’t read something that I would go read it first thing.

  3. Hmm… I’m not sure I agree on ‘you have to read what you’re writing for’ – but then, I’m a copywriter, not a Writer Writer. =)

    However, I do remember something Michael Moorcock wrote (I think it was in Wizardry and Wild Romance – nonfiction study of the epic fantasy genre), about how, if you want to create something exceptional, you have to look *outside* your field, and not just be stuck within it.

    I think that applies for all creative arts, really. That’s the beauty of them! Everything and anything can be connected to what you’re trying to put across – there is no field too wide. Rather, there’s interpretation too narrow. XD

    …feel free to dismiss the battered ramblings of a golden nugget!

    • But then, nugget, how do you know what makes good copy? I think the same applies to even that. It may not be the most creative outlet out there (though it has its moments), copywriting still has a style and a tone and mechanics that can’t be ignored if you want to get paid. If you don’t read anyone else’s copy, how can you know you’re doing the job right?

      I need to read that Moorcock study because I agree and disagree with him. I fully think we should be well-versed in lots of different fields and genres, but I don’t think that the exceptional always has to come from beyond. Good stories are just good stories.

      • nugget

        Oh! I didn’t mean to say ‘don’t ever read anyone else’s copy’, that would be silly! And impossible. XD

        And of course, you should read within the industry itself, and see if you agree/disagree with people’s views/tips/pointers yaddayaddablabla.

        What I’m saying is you should not ONLY limit yourself to ‘within the industry’, because it’ll make you (or me anyway), a poorer craftsman.

        Hope dat answers it! *peer self*

        • Woops! Forgot to add one thing!

          It’s also a matter of whether or not you’re creating for commercial purposes. (IMO anyway.)

          For example, I do definitely read industry stuff on copywriting, as well as every bit of text that I can read, that happens to pass in front of my beady little eyeballs…

          But for painting, since I’ve more or less given up hope of ever making a living from it, I don’t look at fantasy art *as a genre* anymore. Sure, I still look at artists I like, but to be honest, I can’t really remember the last time I went out and looked at fantasy art as a genre thing, rather than as a ‘Ooh look John Howe did a new calendar, I r must have eet!’

  4. I’ll second Nugget on this one. If you only read blogs then you might produce Yet Another Blog… but if you have a literary bent and read technical manuals, you will be able to parse words in different ways and express ideas differently. Yes, there’s a place for understanding the format, but a big part of writing is not only knowing the rules (soft as they are), but also when and how to break them.

    Also, in my history, creativity is bolstered by cross-faction input. The more interconnections you make between disparate ideas, the more likely you are to see something or relate something in a new way and make a real contribution in your writing, rather than just offering more of the same. (Of course, I’m admittedly prejudiced. My writing, whether for blog or otherwise, tends to be rather academically flavored rather than gibberish of the week. I can’t get away from it; that’s just how I think, and the style I prefer to read.)

    That aside, I’m always deeply saddened and aghast when someone says they hate reading or are simply apathetic. How in the world do these people function or even hope to learn anything? I can understand a problem like dyslexia, but apathy?

    It’s no wonder our society is so screwed up. Far too many people are content to be ignorant.

    • I think there’s a lot of positives in intertextuality and interdisciplinary reading. I just think that if you’re a writer who only reads SF while only writing crime fiction, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

      My point wasn’t that a person /just/ read blogs, but that they /at least/ read blogs. The more branched out you can be, the better, but if writers will not even get themselves the base understanding of what they are trying to write, I think they’re going to fail. And hard.

  5. Chiming in with Tesh and nugget, I think there’s an element of both:

    To be a good blog writer (and at least I’m a good blog reader, if not a good blog writer!) I think you do still need to read blogs. Maybe also having a great knowledge of technical writing and literature will make you an exceptional blogger, but reading no blogs won’t help you be a better blogger no matter what your other fields are.

    One of my favorite fantasy series (the Tamir novels by Lynn Flewelling) has a very strong theme of gender identity. It’s obviously inspired by a lot of thinking on gender politics and probably a lot of feminist literature, or perhaps glbt literature. But she’s also familiar with the conventions of high fantasy and it shows. Without both of those elements the story wouldn’t be anything like as good as it is.

    @Larisa – the only place I wasn’t allowed to read as a child was at the toilet! But I read in the bathtub, something all my roommates have thought was bizarre. It’s so nice!

      • For all my insane love of books I treat them pretty badly tbh. They get stains, dog ears and – yes – I read in the tub. My husband hates me for ruining the books. But I don’t see it that way. When I see a worn book I think: this is a book that someone actually read and loved – loved so much that he took it with him everywhere and couldn’t let go of it. A worn book has become an integrated part of another human being and thus earned eternal life. A book that looks new and unread – it looks deserted and lonely.

        As I said: we don’t agree on this at home… I probably sound a bit nuts. But that”s my way of loving books. I devour them! 🙂

  6. Ooh this reminded me… I have to write an insulting post about an amazingly bad translation of a Wuxia classic I read (or tried to read, couldn’t get past chapter 2), a while ago…

    (See! Know your field does have its place too! XD)

  7. I read everything, whether I intend to or not. Cereal boxes are a huge culprit of unintended reading, but I read so much that when I see words I can’t make myself not read them.

    I like to read a little bit of everything, but there are certain genres and writing styles that I favor. I think it’s important to stay exposed to all types of writing even after you know what you like to read the most. Pulling in new ideas from a variety of sources helps us expand our knowledge and breeds inspiration.

    • I’m the same way. If there are words, they’re read. I don’t do it consciously. I’ve tried to shut it off and not read for a while just to see if I could, and my experiment failed. Part of it was because of how I was taught to read: whole-word rather than phonetics. I don’t see words in parts, I see the whole, and thus when I recognize the symbol of a word, I automatically get the signified in my head, and can’t help but have read. If that makes sense.

      • Makes sense to me; that’s how I read, too. I’ve even found that I’ll read in whole phrases at times. That’s one benefit of reading extensively; your speed keeps increasing with increasing familiarity with words and how they work together.

        • I think that’s one of my favorite things. I love being able to know that I’m recognizing phrases or syntax rather than words, understanding the signified rather than the individual signifiers. It kind of makes me geek out when I realize I’m doing it.

          Unfortunately, that style of reading has to be turned off when in editing mode, because it’s so easy to miss small mistakes because you’re taking in large chunks at a time for what they /should/ say instead of what they do.

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