I was witness to an incredibly interesting social media exchange a while back, in which a writer proclaimed they didn’t read. That is to say, they could read, they were quite literate. They chose not to read anything for pleasure. Another writer, just as baffled as I was, suggested this could be the reason this person wasn’t having as much success as they might otherwise. The first writer indicated they were doing okay, because they had their friends, moved in certain circles, and generally knew what they liked.
My internal editor curled up and died somewhere. My internal writer started tearing her hair out.
Tried and True Advice
The first—and often best—advice novice writers are given is that they need to read. Stephen King is a particular advocate of this approach. So are many other authors. As an editor, I myself am an advocate of this stance.
If you want to be a writer, first and foremost, you must be a reader.
Let’s break down why this is so important for writers at any stage of their career.
Learning the Art
A system of apprenticeship doesn’t truly exist in the writing world. But you can use the comparison: If you want to become a master craftsperson, you’re going to study under the current master. Apprenticeships were incredibly common in the Middle Ages. If you wanted to learn virtually any trade, you worked as an apprentice first. (We’ll leave aside the economics of this—it was rather nasty.)
The Mona Lisa took Da Vinci years to paint, but his skill took even longer to develop.
Apprenticeships were also common for artisans and artists. Most of the great Renaissance painters, guys like Da Vinci and Raphael and Michaelangelo? Yeah, they studied under someone else first. Orators—those who practiced rhetoric and public speaking, as well as writing—didn’t just decide to be a writer or a public speaker one day. They studied to do it, often under the tutelage of a master.
Today, a formal system of apprenticeship has largely evaporated for the arts. You might decide to take a degree program in fine arts to learn how to draw, but you’re not necessarily going to be working with the Pablo Picassos and Andy Warhols of today. You’re even less likely to have a one-on-one tutelage system. Worse, you’ll probably have a degree that’s landed you a lot of debt and not a lot of job prospects.
Writing is even less structured. Many universities have a “writer-in-residence” program, but they don’t always pick “big names” to chair it. Smaller institutions may not be able to attract star authors. Your creative writing teachers aren’t usually successful authors themselves. They’re writers, and they’re usually published authors, but there’s a reason they’ve taken a teaching position (to pay the bills).
So how do writers learn? By reading. Reading is, in effect, studying the great masters. You don’t need to study Shakespeare or F. Scott Fitzgerald either. You can study the giants of your genre just as easily. If you want to write romance, read Nora Roberts. If you want to write fantasy, study George R.R. Martin or J.K. Rowling.
Learning by Osmosis
Charlemagne was the first Holy Roman Emperor. He was king of the Franks. He brought together a great empire in the 9th century, about 700 years after the fall of Rome. The guy’s name literally means “Charles the Great.”
He was also illiterate. Charlemagne never learned to read; many nobles in Europe at the time never did. Charlemagne wanted to learn so much, he slept with a book under his pillow, hoping to absorb the knowledge, to learn how to read by some magical osmosis.
Needless to say, that doesn’t work—except for very small children. Even then, we have to work at figure out what all these weird squiggles mean—the sounds they’re associated with. Then we have to string them all together to make words. Eventually, we begin to recognize patterns and attach sounds to them. We can string sentences together. Some of us are better at it than others, but most of us learn how to do it to at least some degree.
Charlemagne had a great respect for scholars and education. He invited many of them to come to his court, and he encouraged them to write, to study, and to spread knowledge throughout the empire.
One way of learning is simply by reading. Another is by doing. When writers are reading, they’re in the process of learning. A book becomes a “how-to” video for the budding writer. We see how others have strung sentences together and note clever turns of phrase. We discover the use (ineffective or effective) of certain literary devices.
Mimicry Is the Highest Form of Flattery
My favorite book is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I was “selected” to read it in high school, one of two kids in my class deemed strong enough readers to contend with it. Everyone else got to read The Great Gatsby.
I was immediately taken in by Bronte’s style. I loved it. The romantic writers are generally very entertaining for me; I can get swept up in the big emotions of their words. Sure, Wuthering Heights is a slog. There was a glossary at the back of my high school copy which “translated” Bronte’s transcription of the thick Yorkshire accent into standard English. The story is pretty messed up. But to a seventeen-year-old, it was an epic tale told in epic, sweeping terms.
There was a point in time when I mimicked Bronte’s style. Whether or not I did it successfully is another story entirely, but the point is I did it. I was so damn enthralled with that story, so moved by it, I wanted my writing to be like that.
This is a good thing. If a writing teacher ever discourages you from experimenting with another writer’s style, ditch them immediately. You’ve read the instruction manual and now you’re mimicking. You’re trying on this different style. You’ll be playing with literary devices, grammatical structures you might not otherwise touch. I mean, nobody today writes like Emily Bronte. That style has fallen out of favor. Yet we still consider it a work of great literature. So there must be something in the construction worth playing with.
A Patchwork Quilt
Your own writing style will eventually be highly original, if only because you’ve pulled on a number of different writers. You’ll experiment with different styles, different grammatical structures, and different literary devices. You’ll decided which ones you like, and which ones you hate. It’s up to you which ones will stay in your style and which ones get dropped.
Over time, your style will become more idiosyncratic because of this picking-and-choosing. Your style isn’t something you wake up to one day. It’s more of a patchwork quilt, developed through plenty of experiments and trial and error.
If you’re not reading, you’re missing out on opportunities to grow as a writer.
What Should I Read?
Some people argue you need to read the “masters,” who authored the works in the “canon” of English literature. You can read them if you want, but I’ll offer one piece of advice here: Most of these writers were actually pop writers in their day and age. Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England what J.K. Rowling is to present-day England. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works were “pop culture” before some academics decided to elevate him in the Ivory Tower.
So go ahead and read the great masters. Also read dreck. Read pulp fiction, popular novels, genre fiction. Read trash. Go ahead and read trash.
In fact, I’ll straight up advise you to go read some really atrocious stuff. The worst you can find. Go wade through the sewers of fanfic on tumblr. Seriously.
Why? Reading can also teach you what not to do. If you come across a really awful piece of fanfic, stop and think about it. Why is the writing awful? If you pick up a novel and it doesn’t turn your crank, ask yourself why it’s not working for you.
It’s just as important to read crap as it is to read “highbrow” literature.
I Don’t Have Time
I’m probably the last person who should expound on the virtues of reading. Since I left school (don’t ask me how long ago; I don’t want to remember), I haven’t done nearly as much reading as I’d like.
Let me rephrase: I haven’t done nearly as much pleasure reading as I’d like. I’m an editor, which means I have the luck of playing with books and words all day, every day. I spend anywhere from two to ten hours per day reading. At the end of my day, I don’t want to read any more! I want to watch TV, play video games, talk to my friends, go to yoga or go for a run, or even write.
Yet I feel my lack of reading very sorely. I’d love to curl up with a good book and just spend a quiet afternoon reading for once. I’d love to get lost in a story, just for fun, knowing no one is waiting for my critique or hoping I caught that last, lingering typo.
I don’t read anymore because I don’t have time. Unfortunately, I’ve lost touch with a lot through this. I can’t speak much to trends and conventions, although I have been writing m/m since the early 2000s. An active fanfic writer myself, fandom was really where I cut my teeth. I also read voraciously during those years.
My knowledge isn’t as “solid” as it was before because the genre’s evolved. I need to get back into reading to rediscover tropes and conventions, to discover how they’re being deployed, redeployed, reinvented, and discarded in contemporary writing.
Shouldn’t a Writer Write?
If you’re pressed for time, you probably feel it’s in your best interests to spend what time you do have writing. After all, are you really a writer if you’re not writing? “I do not like to write,” says Gloria Steineim, “I like to have written.”
It can be tempting to prioritize writing over reading. I do it all the time. But there comes a point when you need to read. Relying on friends or your involvement in particular circles or even just knowing what you like to read isn’t enough.
Trust me. I’ve been writing since I was eight years old. I wrote fanfic—some of it popular—while I was in high school. I won fanfic-writing competitions. Creative writing classes were where I excelled. My undergrad is in English lit. I wrote reams and reams during those years, hammering out my style, figuring out how to write.
I still write reams and reams. I’m still working on style. You never perfect the art of writing. If you think you have, I invite you to read a book! You’ll learn a new trick, I almost guarantee it.
But as a writer, part of your job is to read. Think about a scientist who conducts literally no research, but publishes a journal article about the research they didn’t conduct. That’s stupid! It’s ludicrous! It flouts all the known rules of how science works.
And so does a writer who doesn’t also read. Reading is the research portion of your writing. And writers are constantly researching. Your body of knowledge is constantly evolving. Every time a new book is published, there’s one more potential sample in your study of how to write.
So yes, writers should write, but they must also read.
Pick a Book, Any Book
As I said, it doesn’t matter what you read. You can read something you hate to challenge yourself. Think critically about why you hate it. (I really don’t like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro, but I’ve read a lot of their work anyway.) Go ahead and read something you really love. You can read something highbrow or something lowbrow. You can read a “masterpiece” or a piece of dreck.
In short, just read.