To Write, You Must Read

That proposition will probably seem self-evident to most of my readers. But I recently heard an acquaintance who is the author of a fiction manuscript admit that she is “not a reader.”

I have to say, I was flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. To the extent that I couldn’t find words to tell her she must read if she ever wants to succeed as a writer.

As a child, I was so eager to read that I taught myself at age four. I don’t say that to brag, but to emphasize how inconceivable it is to me that anyone would not be interested in reading. So it’s difficult for me to isolate specific reasons that reading fiction is necessary to a fiction writer. Nevertheless, I’m going to try.

1. Reading gives you a feeling for language.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, language is the writer’s medium. Just as a painter has to learn how to use brushes, paints, and canvas, a writer needs to learn how to use words. This knowledge includes everything from the mechanics of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage to the fine shades of meaning and sound.

I’m convinced that my instinctive feeling for proper and improper English is primarily attributable to years of reading writers who were as skilled in wielding words as Leonardo was in wielding a paintbrush. You can learn rules in a classroom, but you can only internalize the depth, breadth, and infinite possibilities of language through reading the work of writers who have used it well.

2. Reading teaches you how to tell a story.

How would you even know what a story is if you don’t read them? Of course, we all hear stories, or watch them in movies. Certain factors are common to stories in any form, but others are specific to written stories. How do you begin a story in words? How do you develop character? How do you portray a character’s inner life? How do you integrate setting into your story? How do you convey your theme? Movies can’t teach you any of these things, because they use different techniques to accomplish them.

This is just the tip of a whole iceberg of what a writer can learn on a technical level through reading.

3. Reading acquaints you with what has already been done.

If you want to write something fresh, you need to know what has already been written. In every genre, certain stories, character types, patterns, and tropes have been done to death. These may well be the first stories, characters, etc. that pop into your mind when you decide to write a book. You can save yourself a lot of trouble if you know up front what to avoid.

On the flip side, wide reading will give you a cultural context that you can employ to enrich your writing. Allusions to your favorite writers—subtle or obvious, conscious or unconscious—will add depth and resonance to your story as they cause your reader to reflect on the connections implied.

4. Reading acquaints you with the conventions of your genre.

This is the argument I most often hear advanced for writers to read, but to my mind it’s the least important. Nevertheless, if you are going to write within an established genre, it is essential to know what readers (and correspondingly, agents and publishers) of that genre expect from a story.

Some genres have more specific requirements than others. My understanding (second-hand, as I neither read nor write in this genre) is that category romance is one of the most restrictive, with rules about word count, character professions and personalities, and in which chapter the hero and heroine must meet, kiss, fight, have sex, etc. Literary fiction is possibly the least restrictive in terms of specific elements, although arguably the most difficult to write well.

5. Reading gives you membership in the most fascinating community of people in the world.

When I open a novel, I’m entering a new world. Not just the world the author has created within the story—though that’s a thrilling experience in itself—but the world of the author him/herself and of all the people who have read the story, are reading it now, or will read it in the future. It’s also the world of everyone who had some kind of impact on the author’s life that contributed to the story being what it is. And it’s the world of all the writers the story’s author read and loved, and the people who read their stories. When I open a novel, I’m only six degrees of separation from the greatest minds ever to live on this planet.

I imagine every reader has had the experience of making a new friend through a book. Maybe the person next to you on the plane asked what you were reading, and that author turned out to be one of your seatmate’s favorites too. Maybe you met someone on Goodreads, or at a bookstore or a library.  Maybe a teacher recommended a book to you, and through that recommendation you discovered your teacher was a kindred spirit after all.

If you try to write without being a reader, you’ll miss out on this community, and the loss will hurt your writing. It will also substantially impair your chances of getting published. Personal connections are just as important in publishing as in any other field. If publishing professionals you meet sense that you’re not a kindred spirit—because you’re not a reader—you likely won’t get far.

6. Reading shows you what can be achieved.

Those striving in any field of endeavor need to be inspired by the greats who have come before them. You need a sense of what is possible so you know what to strive for. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, unless you’re a born genius like Shakespeare or Dickens:

You will never write better than the best authors you read.

Why Fiction?

This list is far from comprehensive, and it doesn’t even touch on the most basic point of all: Why would anyone who doesn’t love reading fiction even want to write it? If it’s because you have a message to convey, a point to make, there are many better ways of doing that than through fiction. Fiction is (ideally) art, and art does not exist for the purpose of conveying a message or making a point. Art doesn’t so much answer questions as ask them. If you think you have answers, hire a co-writer or ghostwriter and write a nonfiction book, or a blog, or go on the radio and speak your mind.

But please, don’t waste your time writing fiction.

P.S. My apologies for the blog silence the last couple of weeks. Health issues have been limiting my working hours, and I can’t prioritize the blog over my fiction or my day job.

9 comments on “To Write, You Must Read

  1. I too would be dumbfounded. What would inspire a writer to write if not what that writer has already read? In my personal experience, it is falling in love with stories and admiring their authors that inspire even children to take an interest in creative writing and want to write their own stories. There is something pure in that motivation. They are not being prideful. They are not seeking fame and fortune. Their imaginations have been sparked, and they are inspired to create beauty because they have recognized beauty. This is way art continues.

  2. Elizabeth White says:

    My family was poor, but we had books. Since we did not live near a public library our books had to be purchased, but we had them. It was simply a matter of fact; we had books. Books were not considered an unnecessary expense for our poor family. When I began first grade I was already familiar with practically every story my teacher read to the class. My mother had already read them to me. When I began taking literature classes in high school, I could discuss Charles Dickens and other classical authors with my father who had never finished high school. So it always bewilders me when I hear of people who never read, whether they are would-be writers or not. So I was saddened,and delighted, when a young man in his twenties told me last week that he had just checked out a book from the library for the first time in his life. He enjoyed the experience.

    • That actually brought tears to my eyes! One semester in college I tutored a 6th grade boy who could not read. He was being passed along in school and had been placed in one period of special ed. I went to this class once with him- he sat by himself and colored. No one taught him to read. He couldn’t participate in his computer class because they were playing word games- so he acted out. He couldn’t read the recipes in Home Ec- so he acted out. I was told he would receive a certificate of attendance rather than a diploma when he finished high school. I went to his home twice a week after school. There were no books, no magazines, no written words at all! His parents and brother were illiterate. This boy did not even know his phonics. And no one at home could help him. Besides that, he had no motivation. He didn’t understand why he needed to be able to read because his family didn’t. I took him to the library and found that he had never gotten a library card! Thirteen and never checked out a book?! So I got him a library card with his mother’s permission. Sometimes we just don’t realize how blessed we really are until we see someone else that has less. People had just assumed because he could not read that he could not LEARN to read, and no one had taken the time. I often wonder what became of that boy, and I hope the time I spent with him made at least some small impact.

  3. Nancy says:

    This doesn’t surprise me as I hear this from way too many wannabe writers in workshops I teach. I like one of the reasons Stephen King gives for reading well in his book “On Writing.” He says, “Reading well makes it less likely that you will make a fool of yourself.”

    There are plenty of other good reasons, but this is a good one.

  4. Happy Riches says:

    Katherine, you have turned me into a pilferer of other people’s thoughts. Or was it that I had this lazy inclination beforehand. Mind you, like any reputable thief, I work hard at not getting caught.

  5. […] Katherine Bolger Hyde: To Write, You Must Read. If there was any doubt in your mind that you could write without reading. (I’ve heard it!) […]

  6. Denver X. Higgins says:

    There is a fourth way to get a story started, and it’s one I’ve largely ignored. That method is to begin with a theme in mind. I’ve avoided this method of story creation largely to avoid writing fiction with a “message”. I write to entertain, not educate and having my writing come across as a sermon does not appeal to me.

    • Katherine Hyde says:

      I agree with you! It might be possible for a good story to evolve from a theme, but I would have to see it to believe it.

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