Stephen King famously declared that “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Far be it from me to argue with an author who’s a household name. In fact, the most consistent writerly advice I’ve received is to read more. It makes sense. After all, presumably you have an interest in writing because you enjoyed reading. When you read, you learn about craft, see what’s been done before, figure out how language works, and determine what aspects of storytelling you like or don’t like.
Writing without reading is like being a football player who’s never watched the NFL. It’s like a film actor who doesn’t like movies. It’s an auto mechanic who’s not a gear head.
We writers dream that our stories will be discovered by a publisher, put out in the world, and beloved by many. But that’s not going to happen if we don’t have a sense of what else is out there, what makes a story work (or not), or how to manage craft. Bottom line: we’ve got to read more to write better.
Flow of language
Don’t take it from me that reading is important to your writing. Take it from the best-selling author of all time, JK Rowling. She says, “[Reading] is especially important for younger writers. You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader. Reading is the best way of analyzing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.”
Think of reading as an immersive experience in the world of words. You’re surrounded by them, and while there, you’ll start to absorb their rhythm and the way they work almost as if through osmosis. Reading will help you develop a better understanding of the flow of language, especially in its written form. Again, it’s similar to a basketball player watching the NBA. They notice the plays, the strategy, various defenses, and different ways to approach offense. The basics become recognizable. This will happen for the writer who reads.
Because writing is both creative and analytical, it’s hard! Understanding the flow of language and its rhythms is what makes writing “good.” The more you read, especially professionally edited work, the more that flow will get into your mind. When do you stop a paragraph? How do you start one? When do you make transitions? How do you balance dialogue with narrative? Even grammar questions become second nature the more you read.
We recently posted to the Writer’s Blog about the challenges and joys of retellings. You know, modernizing an old story and retelling it for a fresh audience. Think: turning Jane Austen’s Emma into ‘90s blockbuster Clueless. Another example is YA novel Ayesha at Last, which is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in a modern Muslim community. Retellings are popular because they’re easy to explain and they come with a built-in fan base.
The fact is, much of writing is referential. It borrows and builds on work done in the past. How many versions of Shakespeare’s plays have you seen as a movie? Can’t think of any yet? Did you know that teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You is a take on The Taming of the Shrew? West Side Story was the new (at the time) version of Romeo and Juliet. Even Disney favorite The Lion King was inspired by Hamlet. See? Retellings are definitely a thing.
However, in order to reference work, you must first know about it. And that, you guessed it, means reading widely. See what else has been done. Read outside your genre. Read it all. This isn’t so you know what to copy but know how to get inspired. Adding to your knowledge bank is always time well spent.
Learn from the masters
Speaking of one of the great American novelists, William Faulkner, (who, to be honest, I’ve never read a novel by, but….), he says: “Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out.” Listen, I’ve never picked up a copy of Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury, but if they were good enough for the Nobel Prize committee, I’m willing to bet this Faulkner guy knows what he’s talking about. Right?
Listen, not every published work is a masterpiece. In general, though, published books have been screened for some degree of quality. In self-published works, that quality control comes from reader reviews. The point is, the more you read, the more likely you’ll find something worth emulating. You might not be into every style or genre, and that’s okay. Sometimes you learn just as much reading things you don’t like as ones you do.
Tony Hillerman, bestselling author of detective novels featuring Navajo police officers, says: “When I was teaching writing — and I still say it — I taught that the best way to learn to write is by reading. Reading critically, noticing paragraphs that get the job done, how your favorite writers use verbs, all the useful techniques. A scene catches you? Go back and study it. Find out how it works.”
Reading provides a technical sense of how writers craft story. I’m now able to identify the turning point, catalyst, midpoint, crisis, darkest moment, etc, in other books and movies I watch. I can tell when the writers hit their mark at the right time, and why the story seems to “flow.” It’s sort of like an apprentice mechanics taking an engine apart and reassembling it. Reading more allows you to mentally deconstruct the structure of other stories, so you know how to do the same thing on your own.
The bottom line is, if you don’t love reading, you’re missing a crucial part of improving your writing. Reading inspires, teaches, sparks creativity, shows you how it’s done, and helps with the technical side of your craft. Think you don’t have time? Try audio books while you do chores or other mundane activities. Keep a paperback in your purse or car. Sneak it in as much as possible. Remember the motto: read more to improve writing. Plus, you’ll have fun along the way!