“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
“Read a lot. Read anything you can get your hands on.”
“Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.”
If you’ve clicked on the link and read up to this sentence, you are already some of the way there. This point has been driven home by so many writers already, it has become a cliché. To be a good writer, you should read regularly. (Maybe not as much as a thousand, but it’s a goal? At this point, you may either say, “Duh, what’s new?” or “But I can’t concentrate on reading while I’m writing.”.
Both points are valid and fair. If you are writing your own epic novel, play or film script, your head is full of that epic, and taking in anything else after a hard day’s writing seems impossible. You want nothing more than to zone out and not think of anything. However, it doesn’t have to be anything like what you’ve covered in your school days, where your English teacher went on about how this scenery is important and this boring character is symbolism (or whatever). The beautiful thing about literature is that there has been so many different novels and short stories written.
- It can familiarise you with your chosen genre
If you are lucky enough to have found your genre and medium, you may already know the conventions of this. However, it is always good to keep your finger on the pulse and see how other writers are doing. Say you are writing a romance novel. Romance novels are said to be the most in danger of becoming cliched, or driving conventions into the ground. If you go into writing the romance genre totally unaware of what’s already out there, you run the risk of blindly repeating these clichés without doing anything new with them or accidentally repeating someone else’s idea. (This has happened to me before, and it is irritating!)
It is part of your writing process to research, especially if your ideas go beyond what you already know, so why not make it enjoyable?
- It helps you to form your own writer’s voice
There was one writer I came across that said they refuse to read because she has a very strong writing voice and is worried by reading other people, she could lose it. To this I’d say, you’ve found your writing voice, great, but your writing style evolves over time. The more you write, and read, the more your craft will improve. You’ll keep the aspects you find useful, and leave the ones that aren’t. If your writing style is so distinct and strong, then surely it can endure hearing someone else’s writing voice?
But not everyone is quite so lucky, especially if you are just starting out. Reading other people’s work is a journey of self-discovery, just as much as writing your first short story or poem is can be. You retain what you find enjoyable in novels, whilst avoiding things you don’t enjoy. To use some examples in literature, you may enjoy Charles’ Dickens colourful characters and social commentary in novels like Great Expectations; or Virginia Woolf’s witty asides in her narrative like in Orlando. Classic literature becomes a classic not only for its originality but also for how it uses its original influences and inspiration and transforms it, or how it paints a picture of its historical landscape.
- You are supporting other authors
As much as the writer’s world can be an isolating and competitive place, there is also so much room for collaboration. By reading other people’s work, you are supporting authors work and become part of an exchange between authors and readers. If you write them a review, even better! Self-published authors especially benefit from reader reviews, as word of mouth/online discussion is where a good chunk of their promotion comes from. That being said, I am not justifying you leave 1-star reviews for stupid reasons like ‘It’s not what I usually read’ or ‘it was delivered late’. They’re human beings like you, keep it constructive and fair.
- You know what you want from your book
As said before, reading is a journey of self-discovery and knowing what books you like or don’t like informs what you like to write about. The more you know what you like to read, the more you know what you want to write about. Alternatively, you may know what you hate to read and believe that you could write better than that. (The latter is a harder path to travel down, especially if you decide to write in a genre you hate, but you don’t know until you try!)
It also means you can think like a reader when evaluating your work. It is an incredible advantage having this tool in your editing process, however doesn’t reduce the need of proofreading as there will be small things another set of eyes (especially an editors or agent’s) may pick up that you may not have been aware of.
- It improves your vocabulary
This is also kind of a given, as in your reading journey you will come across words you’ve never known before. Sometimes you’ll be able to figure out what they mean in context, but looking it up isn’t a bad shout. (I understand not everyone has the time or patience to do this, as I am one of them. I just want to get to the end!)
In this list, I’ve focused mostly on novels, which can be long and exhausting if you’ve already used up a lot of your mental energy. There are so many different novels that you will come across some very easy reads. This isn’t an insult by any means, as a novel that’s easier to digest can be a better reading experience than a novel that is literally a big block of text (Robinson Crusoe, I’m looking at you!). If novels aren’t your thing, that’s no problem. There are audiobooks, which are especially helpful if you have a learning difficulty like dyslexia. There are short stories, flash fictions, articles, blog posts, poems, memoirs, reviews; all accessible online or at your library. These are little bitesize chunks of reading you could finish on a short commute or the last few minutes before bed or when you get up. Reading bed-time stories to your children is even better, as you not only read yourself, but you get to share that reading experience with your little darlings.
I came across a blog post that said as a writer you shouldn’t read, as you start to compare your work to other people’s and it can scare you out of writing. Reading shouldn’t be an exercise of self-flagellation, as writers don’t write to shrink your ego into nothing. There may be writers with a better style, better characters, settings or whatever. That will happen. Knowing that shouldn’t stop you from doing what you do. Even then, “better” is such a subjective term because different people enjoy different things. You may prize a Dickensian style of writing because you love his books, and therefore he’s “better” than you while your audience may find it too wordy and difficult to process. You do you, and learn from people you consider your betters. If your ego is so fragile, it can’t handle someone else being more successful than you, you are making your writing time punishing and unrewarding.
The beauty of the written word is that there are so many ways to explore it where you may not even have to look at a page. There are so many stories waiting to be heard, in their pages or audiobooks, on their authors blogspot, on your Kindle. If you’re put off by one book, put it down and pick up another that’s totally different. There’ll be a creator for you out there, you just have to discover them! What are your favourite things to read? Let me know in the comments here or on my Facebook page
Jen Hughes- Writing or follow her on Twitter @dearoctopus4.
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