The first few pages of a manuscript—even a paragraph or two of an article or blog post—make an announcement: This writer is a reader. Or not.
It’s easy to see the difference. A non-reader’s opening pages often lack clarity or they’re a backstory info-dump. They might be muddled with too much description or head-hopping (mixed up point-of-view), or they’re riddled with grammar and spelling problems along with easily-fixed typos.
Some of that’s not unusual for beginning writers. But avid readers, in general, won’t request beta reading or editing until it’s a bit polished, and that’s because they know what solid writing looks like. Plus, from constant immersion, they’re brimming with high-level storytelling techniques and write almost instinctively. Sure, their rough drafts will be just that—rough—but the drafts typically have more substance and potential than those of non-readers.
Writers should read widely and across genres.
In On Writing, Stephen King writes, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
He’s right. There’s no way to write—or write well—if you don’t read. How will you recognize a good novel, short story, or poem if you’ve never read one? What will you aspire to in your own writing?
If you’re a writer—someone who wants to become an author—you need to read what others have written. Simple as that.
Reading helps writers…
- Understand the many ways a story can be told
- Experience a variety of styles and pacing techniques
- Appreciate the rhythm and cadence of words in sentences and paragraphs
- Build vocabulary and learn new ways to use words and phrases
- Decide what works and what doesn’t
- Gain knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure
- See how rules can be broken effectively
- Grasp a deeper understanding of language and how it’s used for certain effects
- Develop empathy and insight into the human condition
- Get first-hand knowledge of character development and growth
- Get familiar with literary devices and how they add meaning and emotional impact
- Learn the difference between great and mediocre writing
- Develop realistic goals and aspirations based on reading material
- Imagine possibilities and find inspiration
Think about it: Can someone play an instrument and become a musician without having heard or experienced a musical composition? I don’t mean deaf people, since they experience music as much as anyone else, albeit differently from hearing people.
Technically, I suppose it’s possible.
But accomplished musicians, modern or classical, spend time listening to music, and all admit to certain musicians or bands that have influenced them. But when they compose music and songs of their own, they express themselves in a unique way even while using the same notes, chords, and progressions of musicians that came before him.
The same thing applies to painters and all creative people. Studying the work of others and those who came before them is essential for success.
Writers should read to learn from the masters and enrich their writing.
Take Kelly Rimmer’s The Things We Cannot Say.
The novel is a beautiful, fictional account of unspeakable hardship and love during the Nazi occupation of Poland during WWII, but it’s inspired by her own family history. She researched facts carefully, which required a lot of reading, of course, but the story itself is unique (and one of the best I’ve read in a long time).
Moreover, Rimmer’s writing style and skills are well-developed, but she wasn’t born with them. She learned the necessary skills, and her extensive reading played a vital role. Here’s a partial list of Kelly Rimmer’s recent reads.
Another example of a writer who reads: T.S. Eliot (1888-1965).
The poetry of this Nobel Prize-winning poet, especially The Wasteland, clearly reflects his reading of the classics such as Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra and The Tempest, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and Homer’s The Odyssey. The poem, in fact, could not exist without them and many others.
It’s not an easy poem to unravel with all the references; I spent half a semester on it in college. Some say Eliot is pretentious, but I believe he simply wrote what he knew, and that includes what he read. Here’s a fascinating chart of references in The Wasteland.
David Bowie (1947-2016), though a musician and performer, was also a prolific songwriter.
He said “he would have written novels” if he hadn’t become a musician and called his songs “little stories set to music.” Like Eliot, his often mysterious lyrics with obscure meanings don’t make much sense until you understand the references.
Here’s an extreme example. It’s a gorgeous song, but what the heck is he saying?
You viddy at the Cheena
Choodesny with the red rot
Devotchka watch her garbles
Spatchko at the rozz-shop
Split a ded from his deng deng
Viddy viddy at the cheena
—from Blackstar (2016), Girl Loves Me
If you know the fictional Nadsat language from A Clockwork Orange, a bit of British slang, and a touch of the secret language that circus performers, gay, and other people used to use (and still do to some extent), you catch on pretty quickly.
In other songs, the literary influences and references are obvious. “1984” from the Diamond Dogs album is one (Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel by George Orwell), while “Big Brother” stands out as another obvious nod to the novel.
Lyrics and references from the Ziggy album, however, aren’t as clear. For example, the final lines “Gimee your hands” in “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” refer to Puck’s monologue in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Part of Bowie’s appeal has been his focus on universal themes that anyone can sense in his music and lyrics, even if we aren’t aware of the specific references. Bowie’s list of 100 recommended books is a great goal for ambitious readers!
Great writers read. It’s as simple as that.
If you’re already a voracious reader, keep it up. Read more and study it from all angles. But if you don’t already make time for reading, you should.
- Read anything and everything that interests you.
- Scan news headlines and read the articles.
- Browse around a bookstore, read cover blurbs, read the first few pages. See what interests you.
- Read in your genre. Like thrillers? Read thrillers. Like romance? Read romance.
- Read outside of your favorite genre; you might be surprised. (I would never have read the fabulous Anne Rice if a friend hadn’t recommended her; it was classified as science fiction at the time, which isn’t my favorite genre.)
- Read quality writing. Check out The New York Times Best Sellers, for starters, and pick out a few. https://www.nytimes.com/books/best-sellers/
- Ask for recommendations at your local library.
- For a WIP (work in progress), research the setting (town, city, rural area, country), the native vegetation, wildlife, famous residents, governing structure, history, and so on.
- Research your characters’ health issues, mental/emotional conditions, childhood wounds, or other types of struggle. Become an expert by reading everything you can find on the subject, including other novels.
Reading deepens your understanding of your subject matter, and that can mean better, richer writing than you’d otherwise be capable of. Even if you don’t use every tidbit you learn, your knowledge will improve your writing, guaranteed.
Books writers should read: top reading lists
Books I’ve read recently and recommend:
Kelly Rimmer The Things We Cannot Say (Outstanding; one of my favorites.)
S.K. Ali Saints and Misfits (YA but a great read)
Amy Tan The Bonesetter’s Daughter
Monica Drake clown girl (Another favorite.)
Gillian Flynn Sharp Objects
Carol Rifka Brunt Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Erin Morgenstern The Night Circus (Absolutely brilliant; I read it three times.)
Joyce Maynard Labor Day
Lisa See Shanghai Girls
Douglas Kennedy The Woman in the Fifth
Jodi Picoult Change of Heart
Nancy Willard Sister Water (Beautiful writing; take time to enjoy particular sentences or paragraphs.)
Photo by Sheri Hooley on Unsplash
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