“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” —Stephen King
It's impossible to overestimate the power of reading. But aside from the multiple emotional (and physical) benefits of reading, what unique value does reading bring to writers and their craft?
Can reading more make you a better writer? And what exactly does 'reading more' involve?
Exploring the answers to these questions could open up a whole new area of professional growth for budding writers.
Does reading make you a better writer?
Let's not beat around the bush here. Writing is only one component of being a writer. It's a pretty important one, of course, but reading is equally important.
To quote Stephen King once more:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
No writer is born with the natural talent to churn out novel after novel. Writing is a skill; a complicated one, but a skill nonetheless.
Like any other skill we develop, it takes commitment and dedication to continually hone and craft it.
Consider an apprenticeship. During the early stages, the apprentice must observe and learn from a seasoned professional in their chosen field.
They are carefully shown, instructed, and guided through the common activities and tasks of their role. Over time, they begin to undertake the activities they have observed their professional mentor doing.
They will not get it right the first time, or indeed every time, and when they get it wrong, they'll return to their mentor for further observation and guidance.
For a writer, reading is much the same process.
It's the act of observing oothers who have successfully achieved the level of craft and skill you are trying to develop.
The more you read, the more you'll learn about the craft, and the more you'll have to take back to your own practice as you continue developing your own writing skills.
How does reading more make you a better writer?
“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” —Annie Proulx
To think about this another way, can you recall any other creative field where the creator doesn't engage with other forms of their craft?
A musician who doesn't listen to music? An artist who doesn't attend art galleries?
In any creative pursuit, we need the inspiration of others to help motivate us to find our own creative outputs.
Reading as a writer is about so much more than learning punctuation and grammar rules. It's about further understanding the entire creative field you've committed yourself to.
- Developing knowledge of broader writing rules – and how to break them effectively and creatively when needed.
- Understanding specific genres and the common components of the books that sit within them.
- Building vocabulary and the different ways we can play with language.
- Fueling your motivation to write, as well as further developing your own writing 'voice'.
- Identifying avenues of inspiration and problem-solving your own writing challenges.
Another thing to consider is who you write for as an author. As John Cheever famously said:
"I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.”
Investing time into being a reader as well as a writer helps you to feel better connected to the audience you want to write for.
Understanding what engages a reader, motivates them to pick up certain books, and keeps them returning to a writer's work are all important components of building a professional writing career.
You can only develop this understanding through being a reader yourself.
How much 'more' do you need to read as a writer?
When we talk about reading 'more', it's not necessarily about reading everything you can get your hands on.
Instead, it's important to consider what you're reading, why you're reading it, and how you can learn from it to add value to your own writing practice.
That said, a part of growing as a writer through reading does involve reading books you might not normally be drawn to.
As William Faulkner advises:
“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
Don't rule out reading for your own personal pleasure in the pursuit of reading to be a better writer.
Anything you read will help you in this respect, so when you do read a book that really speaks to you, take a moment to reflect on what it was about the book that you really enjoyed.
For example, you might want to make a few notes on the following:
- Was it the plot or the characters that drew you in?
- What emotions did you feel while reading, and how did the writer use language to influence your emotions?
- What genre is the book, or does it play with genre boundaries?
- How would you describe the book to others and encourage them to read it?
- How does this writer make you feel about your own writing? What lessons are there for you here?
Everything you read has the potential to help you become a better writer – even the bad books!
When you read something you don't like or agree with, consider the same questions above and take these lessons back to your writing desk too.
Does listening to audiobooks count as reading?
This is an interesting point to consider. Whether listening to audiobooks can help you to become a better writer depends on why you're listening and what you're listening to.
For example, listening to a non-fiction book about the craft of writing could be really helpful and valuable over reading the text, if you know you are more likely to absorb information better this way.
Listening to fiction audiobooks can have some excellent benefits for developing writers too, including:
- Helping you to understand how to embed and develop dialogue in your writing.
- Getting a better feel for how readers might engage with certain genres and texts.
- The importance of considering cadence and pacing when writing.
Ultimately, though, reading to improve your writing does require a deeper level of reflection and consideration of the text – and this isn't something audiobooks alone can really provide.
As a writer, you need to be able to see the structure of a novel and the development of the prose on the page itself, and connect with the writing in a way that audiobooks might actually inhibit.
There are merits to both, but in terms of reading to become a better writer, leaning only on audiobooks won't reap the same level of benefits.
Top 3 things to consider when reading to become a better writer
Aside from the reflection questions mentioned above, there are three core areas that are worth focusing on when reading specifically to develop yourself as a writer.
1. Writing technique
As writers, we often have so many questions about the nitty-gritty of getting things 'right':
- When should you start a new paragraph or chapter?
- How should you set out the dialogue?
- What's the correct way to write someone's age or the time on the clock?
Reading more provides the answers to these questions as we observe how our contemporaries are doing it. When you observe specific writing techniques repeatedly, you also begin to absorb those techniques.
As you learn the different rhythms and paces of different styles of writing, you build an understanding of how to develop this in your own writing too.
Without reading anything by anyone else, or even by the publishers we might like to someday secure a deal with, it's impossible to know if your own writing is on track.
Reading for comparison is not about feeling lesser than other writers. It can actually carry many benefits, including:
- Knowing whether your own writing is suitable for a certain publisher or publication.
- Getting a feel for the writing you enjoy and how you can utilise this to develop your own unique style.
- Understanding what turns you off as a reader, so you can avoid the same mistakes in your own work.
3. Creative ideation
Reading more is the best way to help further develop your own creative ideas.
Dozens of writers write about the same topics, so what is it about how they each address a common idea or theme that adds a new perspective or nuance to a familiar topic?
Where are the gaps in the story or theme that you feel could also be worth exploring?
If you're writing about a common idea, reflection on this in your reading could help you to identify fresh approaches to popular topics.
Reading offers so many benefits, not least the opportunity to escape our current realities for a little while and live out adventures somewhere else.
Reading can also help us to better understand our fellow humans and the world around us.
But as a writer, reading is all this and much more.
Without a doubt, reading more will help to make you a better writer, as you begin to gather all the wonderful bits and pieces that, over time, help you to develop your own writing practice, process and style.