Writers need to write, first and foremost. Pen to paper. Fingers to keyboard. But I’m going to make the argument here that the second most important aspect of writing is, in fact, reading.
The advice I give to all writers, whether aspiring, emerging, or established, is to read as much as humanly possible. Read whatever you can get your hands on and across all audiences, categories, genres, and formats.
In the same way that we expand our vocabulary when we read a new word in context, so too do writers learn about their craft by reading it in practice. Difficult to define concepts of writing become clear in reading. Consider: we can easily identify a strong “voice” when we read it. And once we’ve found an example, we can reverse-engineer what makes it effective.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to reading within your particular space, and especially genre. Fundamentally, you cannot expect to write a book without having read similar works. For example, mystery, although a broad genre including many subgenres (and sub-subgenres), follows a very specific set of conventions that are intrinsic to the form. You cannot have a mystery without a host of suspects, red herrings, and twists. If you’ve never read a mystery novel, how can you expect to write one?
However, a lot of authors also avoid reading within their genre when they are actively writing, for fear of subconsciously “borrowing” from other books. This is completely understandable. Part of how we learn to write is through mimicry or parroting of work we admire. But my feeling is that if you read enough, no single work will get stuck in your brain! Sometimes, it is best to read outside your genre while you are writing, allowing you to stay focused on your own narrative, and create space to make spontaneous, synergistic connections. Ultimately, all reading contributes to your understanding of the craft.
Much of what we learn about writing from reading happens through a passive process of osmosis. Through the repetition and practice of reading, you unconsciously internalize various structures, devices, and techniques that you then apply to your own writing without even realizing it. But if you want to step up your game, I recommend what I’m going to call “mindful reading”. Are you struggling with a particular aspect of craft? Go into your reading with the goal of exploring that specific subject or topic. By making reading an active process—deliberately asking questions about what works and what doesn’t—you can learn new skills and discover fresh approaches for your own writing. Feel free to break out the highlighter and scribble notes in the margins!
While there is much to be learned from the classics, critically-acclaimed, and bestselling books, problematic or “bad” writing can be just as illuminating as an example of what not to do and pitfalls to avoid. There should be no genre that is off-limits to you in terms of your reading, from commercial to literary, genre to memoir—all forms of writing are useful resources, and with study, can lend invaluable insights to your craft.
There are many excellent books on writers’ craft, but the best thing you can do for your writing is to be a reader. Writing in each audience and genre requires countless hours of commitment—and no matter what stage an author is at in their career, writing is a continuous learning process. So read to grow your craft. Because isn’t the joy of reading why we all got into this business in the first place?
What are you reading? Send us your recommendations in the comments section below!