Tuesday Thoughts: Why You Need to Read to Be a Writer

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Lately I’ve seen numerous posts in the various writing groups I’m part of on Facebook and on the forums of Writer’s Digest that say it’s not essential to be a reader in order to be a writer. I want to go on the record as saying this is ABSOLUTELY UNTRUE. You must read if you want to be a writer.

The argument that people are making is that they don’t want to be “influenced” by other writers. Oh, okay. So you’re so amazing that you don’t want Stephen King or Leo Tolstoy to have a monopoly on your thought process? This may be an unpopular opinion, but if you think like that, there’s a good chance that what you’re writing is crap. Hell, there’s a good chance that what everyone is writing is crap at first. First drafts are meant to be unpolished and where ideas are worked out and the story is told, bare bones; however, that’s an entirely different post.

Back to the topic at hand.

Let’s talk about why reading is imperative for the writing process.

Would you trust a mechanic who refused to drive cars? Or a vegan who insisted on grilling a filet mignon for you? No! Not unless you had no idea what you were getting into, and most readers have a pretty good grasp of what they’re getting into. They know what they like and they know what works and what doesn’t. They recognize talent and they recognize storytelling.

Where do we first learn about story? Usually as a child. It might have been at bedtime or it might have been listening to your grandpa tell you stories about his childhood. It might have been someplace entirely different, but by the time you’re seven years old you know how to tell a story and it’s not by instinct. You learned it. Probably from being read to, told stories, or—ding ding ding—by READING.

It’s been my experience in college and afterwards that it’s painfully obvious when people don’t read anything but the words that they put down on a page. And most of the time it usually sounds like they haven’t even read their own words before they subject the rest of us to an awkward and floundering reading of said words. I’ve witnessed it and it’s not pretty or fun for anyone involved.

If you want to be a writer, my first and most important piece of advice is this: READ. Read in the genre you want to be published in. Read outside of that genre. Read best-sellers. Read unknowns. Find your favorites and dig deeper. Be a critical thinker. What about this story works? What about the way this writer crafts a sentence works? Don’t be an idle reader. Be active. Highlight phrases that strike you. Make notes in the margins. Make it a messy process. Get offended. Learn something. Reading not only makes you a better writer, but a better person in general.

Trust me on this one.

Now go read something.