The Relationship of Reading and Writing

book heaven 001

Classic Novels and Histories in Three Languages

We've heard it all before — read the type of books that you write. Read often. Read as much as you can. Read, read, read.

I'm going to throw this concept to the curb for a few minutes and earn myself a beating and some glares. While reading is an important part of developing yourself as a writer, I do not believe that it is necessary that you become a sage of your genre. Frankly, once you've figured out the types of stories you want to tell, you don't need to read within your genre at all.

Reading within your genre is a way to tell what is currently being sold. It isn't a way to tell what will be sold in the future. It isn't even a real indicator of what readers like. It is an indicator of what publishers think readers like.

Think about that for a while. Think about that really hard. Yes, you want to learn how to write. You do that by reading and exploring the different styles of writing. You do that by emulation. Eventually, you do that by learning about various grammar rules and how to break them without making a fool out of yourself. Then, you might even have an editor help you hone your skills.

Reading is a foundation of writing, but it isn't the ‘do all end all' of the craft. There, I said it. Being a voracious reader will not under any circumstance whatsoever make you a competent writer.

There, I said it. No matter how often you read or how many books you read in a year, you will never become a good writer if all you do is read books. That makes you a stellar reader, and for that I applaud you, but it won't improve your writing skills, not one iota. It won't even nudge your bar at all. What will make you a good writer is spending the time to learn how to write. You need to understand the structure of writing — yes, you can learn that from reading. You need to understand how characters develop — yes, you can learn that from reading. You need to understand how people grow, what motivates them, and what drives them to survive and live as they live — yes, you can learn that from reading.

What reading won't teach you is how to learn these things. You can also learn these things just from living. You don't need to read books to learn how stories unfold. Our lives are elaborate plot lines. We are characters. We're people. How have you grown? What motivates you? What sets you apart from others? What drives you to live as you live? You can learn all of these things from stepping away from your computer, putting down your book, turning off the television, and walking outside and taking a close look at the world around you. You can even learn these ideas and concepts from watching television and movies.

Stories are the lives of characters. They're the lives of people. If you keep that in mind, and try to create people on your page, then you can tell a story. If you want to improve yourself, and you write with the intent of improving, and you let others shred your precious words to bits for the sake of your improvement, you may very well become an excellent writer.

Reading is a wonderful thing, but it will not make you a writer. It'll just give you a background, foundation education on your genre. It'll teach you what is a cliche. It'll show you what makes an interesting character. Reading books won't magically make you write better words.

Only you can do that. Only you can look at the words you have written and tell yourself that you want to write a better story. You're the only one who can sit down and admit you're not perfect. You're the only one who can decide you want to write stories and characters people fall in love with. This is a lot of work, and you could read every book in the world and never reach this point as a writer.

Harsh? Yes, yes it is. Reading won't give you the dedication and drive to write good stories and create polished works of fiction. A love of books won't magically give you skills that have to be honed through practice and hard work. Some authors spend half of their time reading. That's fine. They're great readers.

That doesn't mean their writing improves on account of it. It never did. It might give them an edge in terms of knowing what's currently out there, but that shouldn't influence the stories you want to tell. it shouldn't, either. With the days of the gatekeepers slowly dwindling and the age of the self-published author rising, you can write those stories dear to your heart — and publish them. Edited, polished, proofread, and turned into a professional product, of course.

Reading won't make you a better writer. Writing and hard effort will make you a better writer. If something as simple and enjoyable as reading could make you a better writer, we wouldn't have nearly so much fun picking at bad books, because there wouldn't be such a thing as a bad bookas I don't know a single writer who doesn't read. Most people become writers because they read and have discovered they have their own stories to tell.

I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy — many more fantasy novels than science fiction — but I don't read nearly as much as I used to. Now, this isn't due to falling out of love with the genre or falling out of love with storytelling. That isn't the case at all. However, the truth of the matter is, I have a limited amount of time to read and write, and my love is writing.

Reading is a treat to be savored, loved, appreciated, and treated as a fragile Faberge egg whenever the moment arrives I can just sit down and enjoy a good book. I read for the love of reading. The days where I read to learn how to write are mostly gone for me — I've found my style. While I can improve on my writing, and work to improve every day, it isn't through emulation that I must improve, but through careful honing of the skills I already have.

Not everyone will agree with this. That's fine — no one asked you to agree with me. I would appreciate if you heard me out before getting cranky at my personal take on this.

I'm going to take this a step further, and talk about why it isn't important to devour your genre, but rather explore others.

Fantasy and science fiction aren't genres of seclusion. If anything, it is a genre of inclusion. Fantasy (and science fiction) writers are the jack of all trades in the writing world, except we can't accept being ‘the masters of none' part. We have to master multiple genres. We don't write just fantasy or science fiction. We write action-adventure, romance, mystery, suspense, and horror — we write histories, biographies, and memoirs.

We play as Gods and Goddesses, creating worlds and bending them at our will. We play with science, and we make concepts that become ours. We play with our characters and treat them as people, then we break them, destroy them, and build them back up again. Literary writers do this as well, but the level of background knowledge required often pales in comparison to the amount of knowledge a science fiction or fantasy author needs for their book to make sense.

Because of this, fantasy and science fiction writers need to be the readers of all genres. I play as jack of all trades, without accepting the idea that I can't master any of them. I'll read articles on biology, animal husbandry, and even nuclear physics just to follow it up with something relating to knitting, gardening, weaving, and even woodworking. Then I'll dance along to the classics, and read about how things used to be, and how people used to behave. I'll spend hours reading about history, when I need to for my world to be founded in real principles.

I don't read. I research. I gather knowledge and store it away. I take notes. I learn about the real world, so that I can twist this knowledge to become a world all of my own. I found a lot of my magic on scientific truths. Then, I break the rules, and try to blur the line between reality and make believe.

Don't fall into the trap of reading your genre because reading your genre will help you write. It won't. Read everything you can, including classics. Learn to love them, because they have things they can teach you if you approach them with open eyes. They're harder for us to read — I really do think we've gotten dumb over the years in some ways — but when you understand how they use words and language, you can really learn something from them.

And, if you're clever and you really want to learn, that knowledge might even help you — eventually — improve your writing skills.

I read classics because without classics, modern literature — and science fiction and fantasy — wouldn't exist. These are the roots of our language. And, as I have improved my skills as a writer, I have a better understanding of the hard work and effort that was put into these books in a time where there weren't computers to help ease the burden of writing a book. There is a lot we can learn from a classic novel, and I gather them to me with the same childish delight of someone opening Christmas presents. Classics have one interesting characteristic — they tell the stories of people far better than most of us do. There is a lot we can learn about people from classics.

if you want to help yourself write better, don't read more. Be more selective about what you read, and spend the rest of the time accepting that the act of reading isn't going to help you write. Writing and working on your writing skills will make you a better writer. Saying ‘read more to write better' is a bit like handing someone the keys to a car when that person has never seen a car before. Sure, with trial and error they might figure it out, but it isn't an effective way to teach someone how to drive.

If you really want to improve your writing skills, write. But don't just write, try to make each sentence better than the last. Follow through. Don't just set your story aside because you finished the first 10% of the work by completing your rough draft. Edit yourself. Have others edit you. Then, fix all of those mistakes and learn why they were mistakes. Improve yourself. Then, start the process all over again and write your next book. Edit yourself. Have others edit your stories. Then, fix all of those mistakes you've made and learn why they were mistakes.

Improve yourself.

Reading books won't teach you that, and it won't make you a better writer.

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2 comments
Recent Reads May 06-11 | Bucket List Journey says May 12, 2013

[…] to Consistently Write 1000 Words a Day The Relationship of Reading and Writing Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers The Science of Storytelling: Why […]

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Atthys Gage says June 13, 2013

I agree with you up to a point, Becca. You can real all you want but writers are made by the endless and messy process of writing and rewriting (and re-rewriting, and then throwing it all out and starting over.) There’s no substitute for it.

On the other hand, I know I learn from reading other writers. Not in the sense of “Hey, that’s good. I’m going to try that” because often as not, I can’t explain why something is really good. It just is. No, good writing inspires me. It makes me want to try harder, to keep reaching. It makes me itch to try and see if I can make something like it happen in my own writing. Yes, sometimes the first reaction is “Wow. I don’t think I’ll ever write anything as good as that,” but that’s not really what I feel. Somewhere deep inside I believe I can and will. The best writing makes me all the more determined.

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