Yes, Writers Need to Read
Every once in a while I run across a non-reading writer. Part of me is fascinated by the non-reader for a zillion reasons. Why would anyone write without reading? Why would a writer refuse to read what others are writing? How can a writer engage in the process of sharing information without reading? How are the non-reader’s messages so valuable that they won’t read from anyone else? How on earth would the non-reading writer become a better writer if they don’t read?
I don’t understand it, but I’m fascinated by it. And I want non-reading writers to know it's OK to start reading, because reading supports our writing.
Maybe it’s connected to our couch-potato culture. Maybe the phenomenon is related to the idea that a person is athletic if they watch football. Or that someone is a film critic if they have seen the last dozen Marvel movies.
Or is it that we have a hopeful, positive spirit as a people and envision that any of us can grow up to be anything we want? Isn’t that part of what drives us to keep buying lottery tickets on Saturday mornings?
Unlike football or watching movies, writing is not a spectator sport. Writers may be hiding in the back of the café with their noses pointed into a laptop screen, but they aren’t separated from society; rather they are closer to it.
I think most writers read and love to read. For many writers, the writing process is a cyclical flow of how we live our lives. We read, we interact, we observe, and we write. These steps flow together in a sort of creative pattern that engages us with the pulse of what’s happening around us and allows us to process life into stories.
Reading provides tangible benefits for writers. It keeps writers abreast of new writing in the world. It provides constant connection to the writing world. Every writer I know asks, “Have you read this book?” as part of their everyday conversation. Reading connects us to each other. And finally, reading hones the writing muscles. Although writing is a different process than reading, the act of reading hones our sense of language, structure, and flow. We have a better sense of what our writing should look and feel like when we read.
So, what should writers read? I mean, bookstores are big places after all. What kinds of books provide the most fuel for the writer’s tank?
Read in Your Genre
What genre (or genres) do you write in? Are you a novelist focused on science fiction, horror, or post-modernist fiction? Is your current project a memoir that has taken a life of its own? Or are you intent on writing a nonfiction series to share what you learned in your career with newbies to the field?
You should be reading other writers in your writing genre of choice.
Every once in a while, I hear someone say they don’t want to read in their own genre, because they’re afraid of accidentally stealing other people's ideas or allowing another writer’s style to rub off on them. Honestly, that’s just silly. If you run across a good idea, use it. If someone else has a smoother style, learn from it. Whatever you write will be your own and will continue to develop over time. Reading in your genre will sharpen your own writing, inform your practice, and help you hone your space within the genre.
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Read Outside of Your Genre
Not only is it a good idea to read in your genre, but I’d also recommend that you read outside of your genre. There is so much to be gained by reading across the bookstore’s aisles. For example, I recently recommended Eat Like a Fish by Bren Smith. It’s a nonfiction account of his experiences as a fisherman and later sea farmer. The writing is exquisite and highly engaging. It doesn’t feel like nonfiction, although every word is true.
I recommended the book to a group of novelists. I think there is a lot that fiction writers can learn by reading good quality nonfiction. Smith is a master at telling a whole story in a single paragraph. His narrative style pulls the reader straight into the book and makes you care about the depth and complexity of the issues. And guess what? That is exactly what novelists are seeking to do.
Read outside your genre and seek out the gems hidden in the pages of those books. It can go far in informing your writing style.
Read About Writing
There are at least a hundred books about writing. As you peruse the bookstore’s shelves, you’ll find books on how to be a better writer, memoirs on writer’s lives, and guidebooks on everything from the business of writing to the challenges of editing your own work. Read those books. Every one of them won't speak to you, so lean toward the ones that stand out—but read them.
I find that most writers have a few of these books they love and tend to return to time and again to re-read. Three of my favorites are On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. They’re spectacular. Every time I read these books, I feel like I’m reading a new book and I learn something different.
By reading about writing, you can better understand both the art and business of writing and where your work fits into the puzzle. You can also sharpen your own practice and work out the details so that your writing process fits your lifestyle and needs. By reading about writing, we become better writers.
So, if you aren’t a reading writer, it’s OK. You can change your ways and start reading today. And if you are reading already, you may want to look at what you’re reading and how well that genre guides your practice and supports your craft. Are you getting everything you need from your current process or do you need to update your choices to include more options? I tend to read in one genre too often, so the reminder to read in multiple genres helps me to branch out and read more broadly, and that reading pushes me to consider a broader audience when I write. You may be similar.
If you aren’t sure where to start, look at the genre you’re writing in now. Hit your local bookstore (or library!). Start with one genre and grab what interests you. After you read that first book, branch out and read a book about writing or in another genre.
Read. Rinse. Repeat. With every book you read, you will become a better writer.
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I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about reading purposes until I had to teach it. When I sat down with my students, I quickly realized that I naturally shifted from one type of text to the next without thinking about how my approach to reading changed, but they needed explicit instruction on how to read for different purposes.
Here are four different approaches to reading that you might use:
1. Reading for Pleasure
For whatever reason, I have always read upside down. I have no idea why this is, but I absolutely love — and I mean love — to read with my feet in the air while lying on the couch. Ever since I was a little kid, I remember throwing myself down, my feet on the couch’s back, and settling in for an afternoon of reading.
Reading for pleasure should be an enjoyable activity. When you look back on your life and think about the loveliest moments, you might include your pleasure reading. This is the type of reading we do while drinking coffee, hot tea, or wine. This is the type of reading when we fall asleep and feel like a mid-chapter nap is just part of the process.
For pleasure reading, the book is one element of the experience. When we read this way, the whole action should be pleasurable: dozing off mid-chapter, drinking a favorite drink, snacking on delicate morsels, snuggling with the cat, and wrapping up in grandma’s homemade afghan, while getting lost in whatever book our nose is tucked in.
4. Reading for Information
When we read for information, we are reading to learn. We come to a textbook to prepare for an exam. We read a series of articles to figure out a solution to a problem. We read nonfiction books so that we can be better informed.
Everything about this type of reading is different than reading for pleasure, although certainly we experience a kind of pleasure while learning. When reading for information, I sit upright and likely have a notepad nearby to take notes. Research supports taking notes while reading to increase memory, and I have found it to be true for myself.
I have a few different ways of taking notes while I read for information. I use sticky notes to mark passages in the book where I need to jot down an idea related to a specific passage. I also use smaller sticky notes that allow me to mark an important page so that I know where to reread after I finish my first read-through of the book. If I’m reading something detailed, I pull out a notepad and take notes by hand while I’m reading. When reading for information, I’m up, focused, with my notepad ready. No naps and cat cuddles here.
3. Reading for Inspiration
When we read for inspiration, we can find the middle space between reading for pleasure and for information. Some say that we read to know that we are not alone. Some say we read to connect to the collective intelligence of the universe. And others say we read to take the next step on our personal journeys. I would say that all of these are true.
Each of us comes to the printed page for a different reason, but many of us come to it to be inspired. In many ways, life can be a challenge, especially for those with health, money, or professional problems. When we come to read, books don’t judge us. In fact, many dozens of authors are solely dedicated to writing pieces intended to inspire.
The reasons that we need inspiration are endless. Maybe you've been thinking about remodeling the house and now you need ideas on upgrades you can afford. Maybe earning your PhD been a lifelong dream and you need to know what programs are out there. Maybe the allure of visiting Paris finally got its hold on you and you're curious about which restaurants serve gluten-free food.
While reading for inspiration, you may not need to take notes, but nodding off mid-chapter would likely defeat the point of finding inspiration. Reading for inspiration is reading to reconnect a frayed connection, and you have to pay attention to make that happen.
4. Reading to Share
I will admit that I lack consistency when it comes to reading aloud to my kids, though when we read together, I love it. Believe it or not, reading was a group activity until recent history. Before people wrote stories on paper, all information was passed verbally from one person to another or from one person to many.
Not until the 17th century did humans even consider reading silently to themselves. We are group-minded creatures and have always shared information aloud: stories, poetry, songs, histories, and government edicts. In fact, until the 17th century, people would expect that if you pulled out a book you would share the information and read it aloud to everyone present. To read silently would have been rude.
If you happen to have a person under the age of ten in your household, then you likely read aloud quite a bit, even if inconsistently like me. Reading aloud changes the relationship between people. When we read in a group, the reader takes the attention from all other activities. If you spend any time with a toddler, you know that it is impossible for a small child to ignore a book. When my kids were little, we would pull out a book and they would instantly race over to see the pictures and hear the story.
Reading aloud gives power to the reader, which is why many teachers have kids read aloud in groups. The reader can perform, be in charge, and lead without coming up with their own stories. Some elementary schools bring in therapy dogs for reluctant readers to build their confidence. The act of reading aloud brings the reading alive. It changes the relationship between people when reading. And it encourages conversation and discussion during the reading process.
When we read, we have to set our mindset for the purpose. What do we want to achieve? What do we want to gain from the reading? How much attention and dedication will the reading require? Do we need to take notes, be super-alert, or access other resources while reading?
When I first encountered the idea of using different techniques for different reading purposes, what I realized is that my students were trying to read for pleasure all the time. They weren’t learning while reading for information because they weren’t focusing, taking notes, or dedicating their time to the text. Instead, they were petting the cat, drinking tea, and putting their feet up: all the things I would tell them to do while reading for pleasure.
As I started working with them on this, we identified that our bodies can look different when we read different books. Our minds need to be in different mindsets to tackle different books. And we need access to different resources when we read different books.
When we identify what we need from a book, we can show up ready to read, and that helps us meet our purposes.
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What do you think about, focus on, and look for when you’re reading? When most of us read, we seek out entertainment and information. We want to fall into a story and let it take us away from our personal dramas for a little while, and we seek to improve ourselves by expanding what we understand about the world.
When readers approach a book, they should identify why they are reading. What is the purpose that brings them to the page? I know, of course, that many of us grab a book at the library and automatically dig into it like it’s chocolate cake because we have an inkling of what to expect. But if we take a moment to identify our needs first, our reading process can be more targeted. We can develop a writer’s mindset while we read.
Writers tend to read differently than other people. While many people have a love of language, an appreciation of the depth of narrative, and an acknowledgment of the writer’s talents, writers look for the how, what, and why of what went into the writing.
When writers read, we tend to ask more questions about the piece like:
When writers read, we look not only at how entertaining the narrative is or how instructional the piece is, but we also consider how the writer went through the process of coming up with an idea, researching the idea, then writing, editing, and revising the piece until it landed in the publishable form.
When we read as writers, we get into the mindset of being the reader and the writer simultaneously. As the reader, we want to be entertained or guided. We want the book to make us better people, better informed professionals, or happily entertained readers. We know how it feels to have a book take over our thoughts so that when we aren’t reading, we’re thinking about the book.
As writers, the complications of writing a book become clearer. We think about how to take an idea from its infancy to a fully developed piece. We think about the language and how to make sure that everything not only makes sense but connects with readers so that people get the most out of the reading that they can.
When I read like a writer, I ask how the writer constructs a book-length piece, but I also ask about what and why:
As we read with the writer’s mindset, we are digging into the writing, how it was constructed, what the writer meant by information they included, and why the book had a particular effect.
What a writer does when they read is analyze the piece while reading. We don't just think the way a reader does. We think about what it was like for the writer to create this piece. By getting into that mindset, every book we read becomes a roadmap for writing. Every book is a manual, and if we can pull it apart, we can get a peek behind the curtain and understand the writer’s work a little better.
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My son has the amazingly annoying habit of looking over my shoulder while I read, and since we get the newspaper on Sundays, he always reads over my shoulder. Today, he asked, “Who is Kamala Harris and what’s going on with her?”
I looked at the column on the right and there was an announcement that she’s running for President. I relayed the message and his response surprised me.
“Yes! Finally a woman and not just another man.”
What prompted his excitement about a politician, I really don’t know. Maybe it was watching Captain Marvel last weekend. Maybe it was that he sees women in most leadership roles in his life since all of his teachers and doctors have been women—even his martial arts teachers have been women. Or maybe he has deep thoughts about gender in politics that go beyond our dining room.
What struck me is that his viewpoint is so different than what I expected from him; he is nine after all. The article in the newspaper jumped out at him, whereas I glanced over it without taking notice. The whole idea that we would have different reactions to the same article struck me as interesting.
Why does this matter to writers?
Have you ever worried that spending time writing your book about the history of African-American aviators would go nowhere? Have you considered picking up a different hobby, worried that no one wants to read a book about driving Land Rovers off-road? Or what about the fantasy book series that has elements of history and science? Have you been concerned that publishers will laugh at the idea?
Guess what: New and interesting ideas sell and they have the potential to sell well.
Before J.K. Rowling was picked up for her Harry Potter series, publishers didn’t see a market for her books and thought of young adult fantasy as a money-losing genre. Before Ray Bradbury released Fahrenheit 451, the interest level in dystopian fiction had dried up. And before Stephen King published Carrie, no one could have predicted that the horror genre would be taken over by a Maine English teacher and become a best-selling sensation.
Is this true only of novels? No, not at all.
Do you remember 2010? This was the time when films made it to the box office because they were written, produced, and directed by men. And their protagonists needed to be men, especially white men. But then Frozen came along, and suddenly Disney broke its formula by offering a story about sisters saving each other and any love story was secondary. Then we got Hidden Figures, Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Wonder Woman. It seemed like out of nowhere people were excited to see films made by and about women.
About two weeks ago, a writer who had attended one of my memoir workshops reached out to me. He asked if his book idea was worth pursuing. Did it have any possibility of being picked up by a publisher? Was there any kind of market for his ideas? Would anyone want to read about his life?
The answer is yes. Definitely yes.
When you have an idea that is different, there may not be an open market in the first moment that you have the thought. You may not have the easiest time finding an agent or a publisher who is ready to take on that project and run with it. But that doesn’t mean the story won’t find its audience. Because if you have an idea that people want to read, then you have a market waiting to be tapped.
Just as my son surprised me that he wants to have a female President, new ideas can be refreshing, interesting, and liberating. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what we think is true that we don’t always open ourselves up to what could become true.
Who knew ten years ago that female-centered films would take over Hollywood? I don’t know that anyone predicted the change in the industry, but when it happened, the whole field shifted.
The same can happen with your book idea. Just because your book doesn’t have a clear market or audience today doesn’t mean that it won’t have an audience when you are ready to publish.
People are on the lookout for new ideas, and when something appealing comes along, people tend to jump on it.
So, keep your pen at the paper. Keep working on your book and stick with your stories, even if the ideas seem unusual or unpopular. We can’t predict today what people will want to read tomorrow, so give your ideas the time and energy to develop.
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