Do Writers HAVE to Be Readers?

Do writers have to be readers? Reading is fast becoming a lost art. In our digital age of television and Internet, even the leisurely reading of the morning paper is going out of habit with most people. Sometimes, when I happen to be in a particularly cynical frame of mind, I can’t help thinking the only people who read anymore are writers. Or is it that readers are more likely to want to write?

Do You Write Because You Were a Reader First?

I’ve always been a bookworm. I was reading novels by the time I was seven or eight, absorbing myself in faraway worlds and the transformative power of the written word. I grew up with the likes of The Black Stallion, Anne of Green Gables, and Little Women, reading them over and over, pounding their stories, their characters, their plot structures into my little brain.

Black Stallion Anne of Green Gables Little Women

Nowadays, I read over 100 books a year, mostly in the hour before bed and on my days off. I read everything I can get my hands on: historicals, fantasies, science fiction, suspense, thrillers, creative nonfiction, biographies, philosophy, even the occasional chick lit. I’ve made it a personal goal to read all the classics before I die; so far I’ve made it up through the D’s and hope to start in on Alexandre Dumas and Daphne du Maurier very soon.

Three Musketeers Rebecca

Why Reading Will Always Improve Your Writing

I read because I enjoy it, because books are the needle to this junkie, because without them I’d probably go stark raving cranky and drive away friends and enemies alike. But aside from the pure pleasure of it, reading is also a vital part of writing. Whether we read because we write, or we write because we read—writers must read. The muse is just as demanding of its nourishment as our stomachs could ever be. Without the refreshment of other people’s stories, our own are likely to wither up and die a gray, wrinkly death.

Two weeks ago, in response to my post about “The Value of Stories That Fail,” several of you commented about the necessity of reading. Shaddy, who authors the blog “Paper Cut Screams,” pointed out:

I’ve been reading much longer than I’ve been writing. Reading gives a writer a huge advantage because we just have a feel for how a sentence should be put together and how a story should proceed. We certainly aren’t “there” when we pick up our pens, but we have a general feel for the direction we should go.

Most of us, when we first decide to put pen to paper and unleash the stories roaming around in our brains, have little to no idea what we’re doing. We may never have heard of “POV” or “in media res” or “character motivation.” Plot and even characters may well be a slippery notion. In short, we don’t often know much of anything about writing. We only know we have a story to tell, and we sit down and tell it on little more than sheer instinct. And thanks to our history as readers, our instincts are usually pretty good.

If You Don’t Have Time to Read, You Don’t Have Time to Write

Reading is one of those things that, since we mostly do it for pleasure, is easy to dismiss. In the crazy scramble of life, as we struggle to find time to for all things we must do (including our writing), it’s sometimes tempting to shove something as “useless” as reading onto the back burner. It’s even easy to feel guilty about snuggling up with a book when other, more important tasks (such as rewriting our horrible climax or fiddling with the dialogue on page 39) are looming in the foreground.

But if we intend to be any good as writers, our reading is important, even vital, to our success. Study to show yourselves approved. Read not just for the joy of it, but as a means of strengthening the instinctual sense of what works.

MisterChris, who also commented on the previous post, agreed with “the idea that readers are better writers—They at least know what they ‘like to read’.” And if you know what you like to read, chances are you’ll figure out how to write it.

On the bulletin board by my desk, I’ve pinned a clipping from a literary magazine. It says simply:










like your life

depends on it,

because it does.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do writers have to be readers? How do you make time for reading in your busy schedule? Tell me in the comments!

Do Writers HAVE to Be Readers?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. How thankful I am you read the occasional “Chic Lit”!

    I’d add that writers who read also *notice*, just as you said about your childhood reading. Techniques in character development, scene description, dialogue, and action can be enhanced by noticing what others do.

    Great post!

    PS: I love what you’ve done with the place!

  2. And aren’t we lucky that our “studying” gets to be so fun!

  3. I still have the copy of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES that my aunt gave me in 1957. I was eight years old and I’ll never forget how much I loved her gift and how I pored over each and every page, time and time again.
    I started reading avidly at a very early age as you did. My second grade teacher added a note to my report card admonishing me for “reading too fast for audience enjoyment,” when reading aloud. Good grief!
    I see you quoted me in this blog entry. Seeing it made my day. I corraled my husband and told him I’d been quoted by a published author. We both got a kick out of it. Thank you.
    Now I’m off to enjoy your book again. Your writing is already influencing me; I used the word corraled here which is perfect in the context but not a word I would have used before.

  4. My pleasure. Keep making such incisive comments and I’ll have to quote you again!

  5. I think this is the first comment I’ve ever left on your blog, Katie!

    I was wondering where you got your list of classics from? I’m always looking to read more classics, and a list to work through would be awesome!

  6. No list, unfortunately. I just browse through the library shelves, starting in the A’s, and grab any book that’s old and has either a title or an author that’s familiar. I’d be happy to send you a list of the books I’ve already read, though, if that would be helpful.

  7. Marie W. says

    Great post! What would a writer do if reading ever became extinct. I agree that reading must be in the heart and soul of every writer. Thanks for the inspiration.

  8. Well, for one thing, he’d be out of a job!

  9. “Most of us, when we first decide to put pen to paper and unleash the stories roaming around in our brains, have little to no idea what we’re doing.”

    Boy, does that describe me when I first started writing. I was so clueless!

  10. But the blessed thing is most of are clueless about our cluelessness… gives us a little time to build up a thick skin!

  11. Love what you’ve done with your blog. 🙂

    …and what a picture you’ve got up this week – WOW!!!

  12. Thanks!

  13. Trying to get my 15-year-old son to read anything other than Nintendo magazine or Manga is like trying to pull a rhino’s horn out of its skull with a pair of tweezers. He needs some direct and home-hitting reason to *want* to pick up a book he hasn’t read. If there was a novelization of one of his favorite manga comics, for example, he *might* be inclined to open it up. Thank God for assigned reading homework! He’s reading the Odyssey now because he *has* to. I read it because I wanted to.

    I’m in my mid-forties now, and I can’t imagine not growing up surrounded by books. Verne, Wells, Bradbury, Heinlein, Adams, Stevenson, Asimov, Howard…these were my influences, my touch-stones, my foundations. Still are! I regularly go back and either pick up an old favorite or something of theirs with which I’m not yet familiar. (But never fear…I do read new authors as well. Several are on my summer reading list.) I loved O’Brien’s Aubrey series! 🙂

    Another fine post, K.M.!

  14. That’s one of my secret fears: that my children will have no interest in reading. Or that I, in my own passion, will discourage instead of encourage them.

    I love Patrick O’Brian. He’s shot up to the very top of my favorite author list.

  15. Love your post…
    I agree, Writters must read !
    That reminds me I have piled up so many library books back at home….
    & yes, I also agree, Shaddy’s comments are incisive. She makes my day too !

  16. Yes, I’ve got quite the pile on my shelf as well. Makes me happy just looking at them!

  17. With the advent of self-publishing and web journaling as popular means of expression, there just is that much more writing, more wordiness for discerning readers to pick through. I’m guilty of it as well, especially in the online medium, and I think some readers just get tired of wading through the dreck for a glimpse at a jewel of a story. Those of us who are lucky enough to have good editors for when we actually do go to print a becoming a rarity. Thanks for your post; I think it’s a concern shared by many (again, mostly scribes). A couple writer friends and I recently decided to address each other with the honorific “Reader” because it should be a title of highest respect. We’re out there, your readers, and we’re glad for your thoughts on the community of the written word.

    -Reader Trespasser

  18. I find it ironic – and a bit frightening – that, even as the number of readers plummets, the amount of written information is skyrocketing. It definitely makes it more difficult to listen past the static and find the gems worth listening to. So here’s to you, Reader! You have my utter respect. Thanks for reading.

  19. Thanks for sending me the link to your blog. I started reading at age 6 and more than anything reading the work of writers helped when I was writing my own 5 books.
    My favorite books as a young person are still among my favorites: all the books by Gene Stratton Porter — Freckles, Girl of the Limberlost, The Harvester in particular — and the Jalna Series by Mazo de la Roche.
    In my years as a reviewer I also discovered many unknown gems.

  20. I grew up with Gene Stratton Porter myself – Girl of the Limberlost, in particular. Good memories!

  21. Great post! I grew up reading (some of the same books as you, it seems), but quit for a few years when I had kids. Then a dear friend began to share her books with me and now I wonder why I ever stopped. Yes, I am one of those people who have a different book in my hands every time you see me. Reading…one of life’s greatest joys for me. Ah, the bliss!


  22. Reading’s the life blood to this poor author – esp. during the times I’m busy with the non-writing part of the writing life. I don’t know that I could survive without it. I don’t know that I’d want to!

  23. I am a reader that is blessed to be a reviewer also, so I *have* to read. In my household it is easy to, like you said, put reading on the back burner as unimportant. Thankfully, I have to preview all books before my younger siblings are allowed to read them, which bumps the reading up to a far higher priority. 🙂

    I did go through a year when I read no books that weren’t for school because I was so busy doing other things (mostly online stuff like blogs and forums), and it was *so* refreshing to come back into the world of books. Now I am guiding my younger siblings’ reading so that they will have that wonderful story sense that you talked about. 🙂

  24. Life seems to get busier all the time, and even for a bookaholic like myself, it can be tempting to let reading slip onto the back burner. But I fight tooth and claw to maintain a full reading schedule. My life suffers when I don’t read.

  25. Couldn’t agree more.

  26. Thanks for stopping by!

  27. When I started my first fiction WIG, I had never heard of POV, dialogue tags etc. All I had was a story that would not leave me alone until it was written. So I went back to read again some of my favourite authors. I studied their style and followed it. My desire to be a better writer lead me to your blog. Since I started my quest, the message has been consistent – Read, Read, Read. Thanks for this reminder.

  28. Learning by osmosis is one of the most powerful things a writer can engage in. It’s amazing how much we learn, without even realizing we’re learning it just by reading the works of others.

  29. “I’ve made it a personal goal to read all the classics before I die” – that’s exactly I dream of. I’m 16 and a bookworm. If you read Dumas, you must read the MArie ANtoinette series, for me that’s the best from him, thought I’ve read the three muskeeters.
    I love Anne SHirley. The characters inspire me. And Charlie from L. M. Alcott’s Eight cousins and Rose in bloom. And all the films I see. and all the books I read. I have a new story in my mind at the very moment I read, see or feel anything. 🙂

    I found a great tip on your site some minutes ago: Finish your story! (I have more than 20 ones, but I haven’t finished any yet. But I got strenght from the tips. I’ll finish some)

    Thanks for your site, it’s wonderful. The best help for a writer in need.


  30. So glad a fellow bookworm is enjoying the site! Dumas is a mixed bag for me, but The Three Musketeers definitely comes out on time. And Anne Shirley is a perennial favorite.

  31. Aye aye sir!
    This is “to be a good writer” exercise I love the most.
    And I am also making a personal goal of reading the classics. Life is just too enriched with fiction, for both readers and writers. (since I have a feeling these days they are either both, or none)
    Since I keep surfing in writers communities, sometimes I feel the whole world is striving to become a writer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Writing is a natural form of expression for people. We all *do* want to be writers, on some level, because we all spend our lives trying to figure out and communicate ourselves to others.

  32. thomas h cullen says

    Writers don’t have to be readers, no: it just depends on the kind of writing experience one’s after.

    Commercial writing – yes. Bare bones writing – no.

  33. I can’t remember ever *not* reading. I think I read more as a youngster than I do as an adult, probably because that’s how I chose to spend most of my free time. I was an introvert and loner even then! 🙂

    There’s a lot less of that free time now, and I tend to read in fits and starts around my other projects. Holiday times are my favourite — that’s when I can go through a dozen books at time. Now that I’m a writer, however, I read differently. I seem to critique everything! LOL!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That sounds nice! Holidays are always extra busy for me. I have to fight to keep my reading time going.

  34. The first question I ask new writers I meet is “what are you reading?” As long as the answer is not nothing, we have room to develop a relationship.

  35. Now I have a valid reason to say TV HAS RUINED THE WORLD!!! It created a people who don’t read…

  36. I rarely watch TV, to be honest. There are maybe three shows I follow, and they’re ones with short seasons (1o-ish episodes). Otherwise, I read every day and prefer reading over watching TV. And especially this year, I’m paying more attention to how books are written: dialogue, voice / style, characters, etc. It’s made reading a more fun and rewarding experience for me; and though it’s hard to see from 1 inch away whether it’s impacting my writing, I really do hope it is!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I watch very little TV too–and only via Netflix. It’s mostly junk food, in comparison to healthy reading habits, so I definitely want to keep my diet balanced!

  37. Carla Doria says

    Of course we have to read. As I started writing my first novel and I found myself blocked on how to proceed with general prose, I found that I needed to read even more in order to improve.
    Great Post!

  38. In a word – yes! I try to read at least a book a week, so I admire your 100 books a year. I read recently that reading everyday has 28 healthy benefits. So, with that in mind, I keep turning pages.

  39. I learned about making time to read my freshman year in college: 1960. I had been an avid and voracious reader my entire life. I always took a book with me on dates (except proms) for those minutes at the gas station or other moments when I was alone. The first semester in college I was not reading anything other than assigned text. I felt bereft. Then I discovered that I could read in the 4 minutes between the time I sat and my desk and the time class began. I started looking for other little bits of time and found many. Over the years I continued to find little bits of time, waiting in line at the bank, eating out alone, waiting for public transportation and while riding the bus. Now that I am retired and sheltering in place, my reading time, to my surprise, is harder to come by. What remains sacred is reading before I go to sleep for at least a half an hour, usually more.

  40. Reading is definitely a must for a writer–not just to learn what works and what doesn’t, but also to get inspired! Sometimes reading a delicious bit of writing reminds me why I love writing and gives me more excitement about my own work.

  41. I was a reader before I was a writer. I’m still a reader and read for pleasure, mostly. Similar regime as you, K.M., but nowhere near a hundred books a year! HAHA But when I became a writer, I wanted to be like my favourite author. A great fantasy, huh? I naively thought that because I had been reading my favourite author for so long that my writing would magically appear on the page like his. After I wrote my first book, I thought, you don’t know jack! You don’t know how to write, this is nothing like your favourite author! You are lightyears from him! That taught me. So, I thought, I know what I’ll do: I’ll undertake a thorough study of his writing. Put it under a microscope and learn, really learn how he does. That’s what I thought. So I did. After that digression, I thought, man, this gonna be tough. I still have no idea how he does it! Sure, I saw some things I hadn’t noticed before, mostly about structure, sentence work and the other, but the magic of his writing still eluded me. I thought, I’m never going to write like that guy so give up now. Just write. The shocker came when I got my first editor. I didn’t say anything about my favourite author or who I read. Not even my aspirations to write like that guy. Well, the editor said you write like this guy, that guy, and the other guy. I said, whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? The first author she mentioned was my favourite author. I was incredulous. I still think I write nothing like my favourite author. But now there’s at least one person who thinks I do. I give up. My editor, by the way, which I didn’t know until recently, hinted she also edits Hilary Mantel. But, like most people who’ve commented, a lot can be learned from another author’s work. But I’m convinced my writing got way better after reading your books, K.M. 😉 I needed that scaffolding to build my writing on. And I think I’ve improved since I wrote my first book. 🙂

  42. Elizabeth L Richards says


    Is that enough of a response?

    A writer who isn’t a reader is like a cook who doesn’t like food. Or a dog trainer who despises animals. They’ll never be the best, and in regards to the trainer, they may do more harm than good.

    Reading & writing are a virtuous cycle. There is an accumulating body of research that suggests that reading develop our understanding of other humans which can only better inform what we write. Can you write what you don’t understand?

    And what is life like when you spend your day creating something you don’t value?

    To be fair, I do understand that you might not read while in certain stage of writing or at least avoid authors you unconsciously imitate. But that’s like a cook going on a diet – sometimes you just have to show some discipline.

  43. I can’t remember when I started reading, and I still read novels in their paper form. Lots of them. I can’t think how I would write if I didn’t. But I search in vain to discover their structure and ‘pound it into my brain.’ I just finished bestselling Australian author Jane Harper’s new book, ‘The Survivor’, set in Tasmania, and I tried to identify all the beats and couldn’t find one.

    I also noticed a while back that some books I loved as a child – ‘My Friend Flicka’ was one – play fast and loose with the concept of point of view. The writer and reader are ‘head hopping’ inside scenes and even inside paragraphs. It took me a long time as a writer to learn not to do this.

  44. Eric Troyer says

    I’m curious what you think about the experience of “reading” an audiobook? I read quite a bit, but almost all my fiction is via audiobook while doing other things (exercising, driving, cleaning house). I find it a different experience. For example, I sometimes get distracted and miss details, but that makes me more aware of the broad swath of the story. It also makes me aware how important it is to have distinct voices and little “markers,” such as a tic or particular cadence, to identify characters. There are times I realize I have no idea who is speaking because the voices all sound the same.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree: it is different. But just as valid. I count any audio books I listen to as books “read.”

  45. Theoretically speaking, reading is not strictly necessary–if all you want is to be a writer. You need not even be literate in any language that any other reader knows. Just as you can be an inventor without reference to modern technology. There is some chance you might stumble on something worthwhile that way, though a far greater chance exists that anything good you do will be a reinvention of the wheel. However, there is also the chance that all you will produce is a curiosity, like the Voynich manuscript.

    Skillful writing surely will require some observation of similar art, if not reading then movies, audiobooks, or oral interpretation.

  46. Kelsey Tidwell says

    From where did you curate your list of classics? I set for myself the same goal as you did. That is, to read the classics before I die. But I have yet to find a definitive listing of “every” classic novel. Even though I’ve made good progress over many years, I feel like I’d make a lot more if I had a list to keep me in line.
    Thank you for your work!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t have a definitive list. My guideline is basically: any author or book name I recognize that was published before 1965.

  47. After more decades intensely reading than fingers on one hand, my reading habits have changed. I read many genres but with a more involved point of view. I enter the skin of the protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters and make up their history and character if the author has not provided same.

    I draw on my global experience on five continents, through layers of society from groveling in the dirt to rulers of countries and companies, and social movements to fabricate the characters and try to understand why they are the way they are.

    I pass if the stories and people are too shallow—I lack time to spend reading drivel as I write my next novel. As an author, I do my best to put the reader inside the skins of my characters and locations and plots. One reviewer said my stories are like taking a travel vacation. Just so. My overriding goal is to entertain my readers.

    TV is lost on me for the most part. The necessity to break the story into seven and a half minute chunks between commercials and to finish the story within an hour leave me cold. A meaty novel is far better.

    I am living in colonial India from the eyes of Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” and love every dusty step he takes.

    A writer who does not read is like a chef who does not eat. Both can turn out a result but of what quality?


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