You’ve heard it hundreds of times: one of the most important things to do if you want to write is to read a lot. But why is reading so important – surely it would be better to devote that time to just practising writing?
Today, we’re going to explore three ways in which the things we read can help the things we write.
Reading Exposes You to Other Styles
One of the things I struggled with a lot when coming to understand this is getting my head around why it’s important to expose yourself to other peoples’ styles of writing. I found this hard mostly because I would often, after reading an author for a period of time, find myself starting to write a little bit like them – like a kind of stylistic sponge. I worried that if I kept doing this, I would eventually lose all of my own personal style. Whatever that style was, at least – I’ve still not gotten used to identifying it.
But here’s the thing: your personal style is in part formed from the sum total of the things that you are. You are your experiences and what you have been exposed to. In many ways, your voice is an amalgamation of everything you’ve ever read. There’s a limit to this, of course. It would be too easy to go into caricaturing another author if you leaned into it. But for the mostpart, reading as much as you can only further develops that voice of yours.
To put it a slightly different way: your style is limited by that which you know to be possible. By reading, we become aware of those possibilities, and can expand our capabilities.
For example, I have always been taught (and read) to use a variety of sentence lengths and structures. But there is a power in not doing that, too. I’ve been reading Chuck Wendig’s Journey to Star Wars novels in the past couple of months and when I first started, I was overwhelmed by his style. It’s present-tense, punchy, short, abrupt, stark. It’s markedly different to anything that I have read before, and as a result I found the first few chapters hardgoing. But I kept reading, and the more I read, the more I realised that his style is not only perfect for these books, it’s got a lot I want to learn from.
Reading makes you write better.
Reading Exposes You to Plots and Pacing Them
I’ve said the p-word, and as such all of the writers reading this have cringed as one.
Pacing – there, I said it again – is one of, if not the, hardest things about writing. You can often tell when it’s wrong, but not how to fix it – sometimes you can’t spot it at all, because it’s like trying to edit your own work. You see what you want to see. But it’s also one of the things that it’s easiest to get wrong. I don’t know anyone who’s not struggled with it at some point. Reading can help with this too. More specifically, reading bad books helps with this.
I have read a lot of paranormal romance fiction and let me tell you, there are some gems and there is a lot of garbage. Reading them has shown me a myriad of ways in which I do not want to pace a novel – especially in pacing the romance side of a novel. That in turn has taught me to recognise when I, too, have done a Bad Thing with my pacing. I still benefit a lot from readers confirming to me that I’ve messed up my pacing but more and more frequently, I’ve already identified the problem parts.
Learning from the plotting in what you read is a lot like learning from style. You see what other people have done – how they’ve dropped plot bombs, how they’ve executed plot twists, how they’ve foreshadowed – and that teaches you how to use those same tools. You see both the use of your genre’s tropes, and the ways in which they can be subverted. The more you read, the more this improves. I’ve listed it here with pacing because very often the two are interlinked; a plot twist can bring a minefield for pacing, and bad pacing can ruin your plot shifts.
Reading is a Springboard for Inspiration
I’ve talked before about how hard it is to generate ideas, but it bears repeating because it’s especially relevant here. To an extent, everything you do has a chance to be a springboard for an idea – but when you’re reading, that chance is even greater.
Because you’ve not just got a chance to be inspired by the things common to all fictionalised content. You’ve also got a chance to be inspired by the writing side of things: the language and style, the plot and pacing, narration and perspective. Imagine you’ve lost a ball. You don’t go and search your neighbours’ gardens first, you start with your own. It’s much more likely to be there. Ideas for writing are, astonishingly, much more likely to be found…in writing.
I also think this is one of the places where reading outside of your genre is really useful; there may be ideas in other genres to which you haven’t been exposed. I’m personally trying to read more science fiction. I want to benefit from the different kind of cultural worldbuilding you find within them. Fantasy worldbuilding can easily become stale, but in science fiction – in my experience – there’s a lot more effort put into making things distinct and differentiated.
Any Content’s Great – Writing is Best
Basically what I’m saying is this: the main thing is that you consume something, but if you consume writing then it’s already tailored to teach you what you need. It gives you that multifaceted springboard. You could watch films or television, and you’d get ideas for dialogue and characterisation and plot. I think you should watch them for those things. But if you’re reading, you’ll not only get those things, but you’ll get how to deliver them. You’ll get the other things like pacing and style and language.
This doesn’t, however, necessarily mean novels. You could read short stories or poetry or even text-based games (but I might be biased on that last one). The important thing is to read. Read your genre, read other genres. Don’t worry that the fact that you’re reading differently will make you enjoy reading less. In my experience, I appreciate books significantly more than I used to. Now, I get jump-up-and-down excited when I see someone subvert a trope, or use sentence structure in a clever way. I love them deeply because I understand what it is to make them.
And that’s it; that’s the crux. You’ll appreciate reading as an author in a way you never experienced it before. And if you only do it for that reason? Well that’s a pretty good start.
If you enjoyed this blog post and would like to read more of my articles on writing and reading, check them out here!