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 all 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.
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.