Friday, November 19, 2010

Happy Writers Society: The Importance of Reading

Welcome, welcome, my dear members. How have you been? NaNo going well? Oh, sorry, I'll talk quieter for those who're furiously typing away in the back over there. Thanks for at least coming—I do know what a sacrifice that was at this point in November.

Ahem, as you know, I've been doing my own version of NaNo, in which I read as many novels as I can this month. I'm...a little behind at the moment, but I am determined to keep going! Because, as always, reading has helped me write.

This is our topic today, and HWS member Jadi has sent me some thoughts I'd love to share:
King Stephen, um, Stephen King says, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."

I've read Stephen King's memoir not too long ago. I didn't agree with everything, I won't lie. But the reading thing is almost non-negotiatable. Earlier this year (I was reading my first SK novel, actually), I almost got into an argument with a guy that said reading isn't that important.

"Do you write?" I asked him. I thought that surely a real writer would know better.
He said that you should discover it on your own. Wing it.

I almost said, "Well, you must not be very good," but another guy in the room defended the readers' case against him. It was probably for the best that I didn't say anything more.

No part of the writing process other than the writing itself is as important as reading. Not research, not attending conferences. Reading is the literary gas that fuels your writing car. Without it, you can't go very far. For those of you that started writing because of reading, it will remind you why you love to write. Reading is magical, just as magical as writing is. It's a great cure for writer's block. Period.

It may also help you with an area you're struggling with. If you're struggling with a certain area, partner up with a friend who knows a book that shines in that area. You shouldn't copy their style, but you can get an example of what it's supposed to sound/read like.

Your favorite book was once a crappy first draft too and reading it shows you what it can become.
I'd just like to add a hearty "Amen!" to this. Reading is so, so important. I know that many of us worry about accidentally copying or being too influenced by another's style, etc. But to that I say, "Is that such a bad thing?"

I lived in the art room in high school. I took every art class my school offered. My art teachers? They didn't tell me to just wing it, to draw straight from my imagination so as not to be influenced by any other artist or style. No, we copied a lot. We made displays to replicate on paper. We had models for figure studies. We studied masters, copied masters, in order to learn established techniques.

Why? Because just like in any field, you can't break the rules until you know the rules. How do you learn the rules? By studying. In writing, that should include a great deal of reading.

Reading is an essential tool in your education as a writer. Don't be afraid of it! Use it! Enjoy it! Reading teaches you what works and what doesn't. It teaches you what you like and what you don't. It really can fix writer's block. It helps you find your style, not mimic, trust me. It inspires you to do better. And, yes, sometimes it reassures you that you are good enough to get published.

In short, reading (especially this month) has made me a much happier writer! I've set up a reading room in the club house in honor of this post. It has comfy chairs and a hot chocolate dispenser. Feel free to enjoy, and learn from, a good book.


  1. Natalie,
    I love this post, and couldn't agree more. I definitely couldn't write without a wealth of reading. The two are so intertwined. As an English teacher (in another life), I used to give assignments to copy the style of a famous poet. It was a great assignment that really improved student writing. Thanks and happy reading/writing!

  2. "I know that many of us worry about accidentally copying or being too influenced by another's style, etc. But to that I say, "Is that such a bad thing?""

    Nope, sure isn't. Because it's apprenticeship. :)

  3. Yes yes and yes!

    I think I've read more this year than any other. I've also written a lot more this year than any other. Coincidence? I think not.

    So much of writing well, sentence to sentence, is intuitive. That's something that only comes from reading and writing a LOT. You just get to the point where you think "hmm, something sounds off here..."

    Right now I'm re-reading Ella Enchanted for the millionth time. Only this time around I'm marking up the pages with all the things she does well. It's so cool that, as you pick apart a well-written book, you can see all the effort and work the author put into it. I'm loving this re-read, and it's great to know that writing comes with lots of hard work--even if it seems effortless at first glance.

  4. Reading a lot is the number one thing that has helped my writing. Sometimes when I'm reading or listening to audio books I get the best ideas for my ms (that are not at all related to what I'm reading). There is something about reading that is most definitely magical, something that almost organically triggers something creative inside of us.

  5. I simply read to much and use it as an excuse not to write the hard things.

  6. I'd like to add my "Amen!" And in some weird paradox of time, I always find that I have more time to write when I make the time to read. Maybe because the words flow easier when a good book dusts out the corner of that part of my brain.

  7. "Good artists borrow. Great artists steal."

  8. An agent (I forget which)once said that it is rediculous to worry about copying. I wish I had the article, but in essence she said that a good writer doesn't have that problem. Reading definitely helps me the most with pacing. It keeps me on track in my own story and after reading a great book and then going back to my own I can see where mine lags, where I get caught up in unimportant things.

  9. Thanks for the hot chocolate, I need it!

  10. I am a former professional fighter who knows the importance of learning your skills from what has already been established. Regardless of who you emulate--whether intentional or not--you always add your own personal style. I believe this, not only in writing, but in all aspect of life is how we evolve.

  11. I couldnt agree more with you on the reading bit. Reading has most definitely made me a better writer.. but sometimes i do wonder if reading fiction while i am working on a the first draft affects my writing style! chocolate :-)

  12. In every creative task I've ever done (writing, drawing, music, etc.) I've found the same process. At first, you copy people you love, and the stuff you create looks (or sounds) just like them. It's easy to quit at this point, assuming you don't have your own style, but the more you copy people -- and the more people you copy -- the more your own style starts to emerge.

    You start combining tools you learned from different masters into something new, and every once in a while you even make up your own tool (except almost certainly someone else has already thought of your new tool, you just didn't know it, but that's okay too!).

    So I say read and copy. Copy a lot. Eventually it'll look like something that's all you.

  13. This makes me feel better about my insatiable reading habit!

  14. Great, often misunderstood topic. Since I started writing, I'm rereading some of my favorite books and picking them apart to see how the authors did what they did. Last week I looked at pacing in the Hunger Games and blogged about it. Next week is transitions to flashbaacks, so I'm reviewing Fire by Kristin Cashore and The Sword-edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe, as advised by a wise crit partner. I didn't even remember his transitions, they were so smooth;)

  15. I wholeheartedly agree. I've always found it a little presumptuous of someone who doesn't care enough to read to consider being a writer. For me the two just don't make sense together.

    I only wish to write because I love reading so much. I want to be part of that incredible creative process. And since I've begun writing, it's actually increased my enjoyment of reading because now I more easily appreciate how difficult it can be. I'll be reading a book now and stop and think "Wow, that was beautifully said."

    Sure. Let's have doctors operate on us who've never been to med school. <_<

  16. Awesome post. And so true.

    Writing without reading like trying to live without breathing. Simply not possible. I can't even imagine not reading. Reading is what made me want to write, what inspired my stories and love for world-creating. Reading is what comforts me when I just need a break from my life. I don't think I've gone a single day without reading something just for myself since I learned to read. Writing without reading is just not possible and it seems silly to even suggest it.

  17. Hear, hear.

    Who has time to write enough to discover everything on their own. Build on what those before you have shown.

    Reading helps you discover what genres you like. And don't like. Ditto for settings. And style. And themes.

    I love reading.

    Truth is, I probably read too much. It's a part of my New Years mission to fix that though.

  18. I don't think I could be a writer if I wasn't such a voracious reader. It's like being a musician who never listens to music. I mean, why?

    Ironically, my verification word is:

    UNKING (Un-King?)