Reading for Writers: Input and Output
Reading, for a writer, is the primary method for staying on top of news in their profession. Others’ work provides an insight into competitors’ methods, a lesson in new skills, and an endless supply of raw material. Sometimes, however, reading doesn’t stay at the top of the priority list. There are excellent reasons for this, and asking “How much should a writer read?” can’t be answered with any single, universal number.
First of all, input in this age can be taken in a variety of forms. Reading written work is indispensable, but hardly the only way to learn narrative skills. Performed narrative, in documentaries, TV series, popular movies, and classic film all have writers behind them producing scripts and screenplays. Their work may produce a visual product, but it’s just as instructive in narrative skill.
If, for whatever reason, you wish to make reading more a part of your writing regimen, first take some time to determine what you’re already taking in. These sources are your current teachers in your free time. Include the time you spend with it (yes, all the hours binge-watching online), the titles of the work (Series name or episode titles, it doesn’t matter that much), and the medium (online, TV programming, podcast, radio, blog posts like this one, etc.). Then, and this is the push, look up the writers. These have been your favorite “authors”.
After sorting out what you have been taking in, and giving credit where credit is due, here are a few guides to help make your professional reading more effective and directed as an aid for your writing career.
Read in your genre, in your medium. Why Writers Must Read is a great post on this subject and it includes an experience no writer wants to have. The guest post author describes how she was in a writing course and a couple of authors brought with them their fantasy novels already in progress. Unfortunately neither of them read much fantasy at all and their work essentially rehashed all of the over-done techniques with very little interest for their test audience. While any idea can be made fresh and new, writing in a genre you do not read can lead to wasted time while you “reinvent the wheel”.
In terms of medium, if you write novels, read them. If you write short stories, read those. Poetry? Great! Read poems. Within every medium are several forms. Novels, for example, can be epistolary, experimental, three-act, four-act, first/second/third person perspective, framed by an over-story, woven with an under story, symbolic, literal, thick with characters, led by one character, etc. Authors publish with new forms all the time. Exposure to this potential can lead to inspiration for new kinds of stories and unique methods of sharing them with an audience.
Read the classics, the popular works, and the rising stars. This supports the in-genre reading already mentioned. Fans of a genre (aka the target audience for any genre-based work) often know their stuff, old and new. Classics teach how the genre’s common elements came to be so popular. The popular works bring in new fans with each phenomenal title. A fantasy author who hasn’t read any of the Harry Potter books, or dystopian writers who haven’t picked up Hunger Games, will likely find themselves compared to these series despite their best efforts. Understand that today’s popular books will likely be enduring classics for their generation of fans.
Rising stars in a genre may be more difficult to pin down, but publishers invest huge amounts to promote those authors. That simple fact should be enough to say they’re doing something right. Marketing money doesn’t always mean the work is quality, but it does mean their project is considered promising. Work that sells, or at least convinces publishers it will, can pay the bills for an awfully long time. Know where the big players in publishing are placing their bets.
Read quality instruction and solid reference material. Books on writing won’t instantly make your work better, but it can sure help with confidence and inform your practice. In these days of self-publishing, anyone can write a book on writing. This doesn’t mean what they share isn’t useful, but instructional works used for formal instruction, or highly recommended by authors you respect, will get you farther faster. When in doubt, look up the author of the book and thoroughly check their credentials. Read something of their professional work, if necessary, to determine if this is the kind of person you trust to teach the craft.
Every language requires conventions to ensure understanding across forms. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules support all writing. When working on your writer reading list, include a few accredited language guides. These aren’t leisure reading, but having them on hand for any questions (or to take in a rule or two at a time between writing sessions) can help avoid embarrassing slip-ups and gradually strengthen your grasp of language function and technique.
Reading fuels writing. Trust your gut and your style, but somehow work reading into the schedule even if it’s as simple as leaving a book in the bathroom for your daily constitutional! Benefits from reading vary from person to person. Find the benefit for you.
American novelist Elise Blackwell. She said, “I think heavier reading is essential for young writers, but, like you, I moved into more writing than reading. The balance of my reading and writing shifts across the year, and I suspect I’d read four hours a day if I didn’t have a day job. In the summer, when I’m not teaching, my reading and writing very nearly even out at four and four. When I’m teaching though, both are reduced – the reading by a much larger amount. The pattern also varies by where I am in writing a novel. I tend to read very little when combing the final draft and of course much more right after I’ve finished.”
“Last week the Guardian published a list of writerly rules donated by respected authors. Somewhat surprisingly, only a quarter of the authors advised aspiring writers to read. Perhaps reading is too obvious, too fundamental to be perceived as a rule – like advising chefs to eat if they want to learn how to cook.”
Pace is a factor; reading for study vs. reading for enjoyment
“Many people read books to finish them. This is not always necessary. You can and should read books or articles just to read them — to glean new ideas, learn new words, and fall back in love with writing.”
“Writing is a difficult trade which must be learned slowly by reading great authors; by trying at the outset to imitate them; by daring then to be original and by destroying one’s first productions.”
(attributed to André Maurois, 1885-1967)
“The point of reading while writing is to recharge your creativity. It also puts some thoughts into your mind that might later come out as a completely different story idea.” Misha Gerike
“Most of my reading is prompted by something I’m working on.” Roz Morris
“If they don’t read, how can they write? My impulse to write comes from reading. Once I’ve been in the grip of a good book, it gets me to go and write my own.”
“It develops your palate for all the tricks that writers have invented over the years. You can learn from textbooks about the writing craft, but there’s no substitute for discovering for yourself how a writer pulls off a trick. Then that becomes part of your experience.”
“The disadvantage with books is, as Stephen King was probably addressing, that reading takes time—especially if, like me, you can be bamboozled by a beautiful sentence. But the average movie is ninety minutes to two hours. In that time you can get an entire story under your belt. I get a lot of my storytelling ideas from films.”
“Before I ever dared try it ‘properly’ I loved discussing with them what I liked about novels I’d read, and what I didn’t like. So my education in writing came—as I have been describing—by reading other good fiction and getting a natural education from what I noticed.”
“Reading will… educate writers about what has already been done.” Lori Lake
“Read, read, read. 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. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” ~William Faulkner
“It’s not enough to merely read, even if one absorbs hundreds of books. Writers need to read with more intent, more focus, more awareness than the average reader. It’s one thing to read and enjoy a story; it’s quite another thing to read for MORE than story.”