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:

read

read

read

read

read

read

read

read

read

like your life

depends on it,

because it does.

Tell me your opinion: Do writers have to be readers? How do you make time for reading in your busy schedule?

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.

Comments

  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!

    Dona

  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.

    Flora

  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!

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