As a writer, you know how important reading is. Right?
You hear this all the time. It’s touted over land and sea, through the ethers of the Internet. And I preach it regularly as well.
But so many more people want to write, than actually take the time to read. A few years ago, Seed Magazine conducted a survey that found 90% of Americans want to write a book. Now, think of that. If all those millions of people actually read books, authors would be rich!
But you would be simply amazed by how many writers contact me, and say upfront, “I don’t read. I watch movies.”
And on the surface (i.e., those just considering penning a masterpiece), this may seem like a workable option. I mean, it’s all entertainment, no? How different can novels be from films?
Funny thing—aspiring scribes who watch instead of read don’t have to tell me. It’s apparent in every word on the page . . . Because as the best book editors know, and readers soon find out, those who don’t read, can’t write.
No doubt about it, reading—widely and deeply—is one of the two most important actions to authoring great novels and works of narrative nonfiction. Of course you know the other one (actually writing) 🙂
But have you ever wondered why?
Here are 7 big reasons reading improves your writing:
When you first started writing, I bet your voice was all over the place. Comes with the territory, and everyone starts that way. You know how you stumbled upon your first beautifully written passage? And said, “Wow! I wrote that.” At first, those instances are so few and far between, they shock you.
But the longer you keep at this, the more often that occurs.
Reading introduces you to the different cadences in the voices of other writers. The symmetry of their prose, the iambic pentameter or poetic structure of it, such as that of a Norman Maclean. And the clanging sounds as well of about a zillion books out there today. But the short, spare prose of a Hemingway, or the long flowing beauty of a McCarthy, simply glow from the pages.
Don’t you just hate when you’re writing along at a nice clip and a word eludes you? You simply know one would fit perfectly where you’ve used three on the page.
Yep, you can consult a thesaurus for this. But funny thing about that—it sticks out like a green-flowering milkweed in a field of daffodils. In short, unless words come up organically through your writing, they stand out. And not in a good way.
Nothing increases vocabulary like reading. Of course, it goes without say that means well-written books.
That seems self-explanatory enough, no? You muddled through high-school English, and diagraming sentences. Horror!
And well, yes, while sometimes we’re talking pure sentence structure, there’s a lot more to that when effectively writing fiction or narrative nonfiction.
The flow of your sentences changes with the effect you seek. We lavish word count on seminal moments, wanting the prose itself to be flowing and deep and beautiful. But in action/panic/fearful scenes, we use short, snappy sentences, which cause the reader’s eye to move more quickly down the page, quickens the heartbeat, and causes the emotion to well up within him.
Seeing how other writer’s effect this, you can then own the tools yourself.
- Character Development
You’re bound to have read your fair share of flat characters, no? But then again, you’re breath has also been taken away by folks who simply jump off the pages, as real to you as your next-door neighbor.
The former is simple. The latter, tough to evoke.
Reading brings both to light. The characters you can’t let go of, who years later haunt your dreams, why is that? Because the author evoked them deeply on the pages, allowing you to love and hate and laugh and cry—along with them.
For example, in reading a Raymond Carver, we find that in the end, we aren’t our characters. But they are us.
- Effective Plotting
We all know the 3-act structure here, no? That all books have a beginning, middle, and end, and within those acts come plot points both major and minor.
And yes, it’s very helpful for writers to study that (I often have mine outline what they have and then compare it to an in-depth study on said 3-act structure), it becomes oh-so much more visible when you’ve read hundreds of books.
You know those books that lost you due to sagging middles? The reason always lies in a breakdown of that structure.
Reading shows you plots that worked, and those that didn’t.
- Literary Devices
Of course, you can study those as well. Books abound on that subject.
And I’m not saying studying those isn’t helpful. It is. But unless you can anchor that to specific stories, using those tools effectively is elusive indeed.
In other words, forcing a literary device stands out, again, like that green-flowering milkweed.
Chekhov taught us about the gun hanging on the wall in the first act. And, most importantly, how it must go off in the third act. Otherwise you’ve just led your reader down a path to nowhere. And readers’ll quit you in a heartbeat when you do that.
Reading great literature shows you how to effectively use those devices.
- Internalizing the Nuances
Most important of all, when learning the plethora of skills that go into writing for publication, all the studying in the world won’t get you successfully there.
It helps. Yes. Studying one’s craft is essential to writing great fiction, especially.
But the best place to study that is in the vast field of fabulous books. Because in doing so, all of those nuances filter down into the very marrow of your bones. And from there, you can allow them to organically flow through your own writing.
Reading is pleasurable, enlightening, and just plain fun.
If you don’t find it that way, why are you writing? Doing so would be like opening an ice-cream store when you don’t like sweets.
So what all the best book editors agree on (and trust me—they don’t agree on a lot!) is in order to write well, you must of course write. And read, and read, and read . . .
As Samuel Johnson so famously said, “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”