Reading As A Writer

There’s currently a kerfuffle on Twitter about someone who said that writers must read and questioned why on earth someone would want to write novels if they don’t read them. It’s not new advice, but who said it or how they said it led to accusations of them being ableist since not everyone can read novels.

(I think they may have called out ADHD in particular. I don’t know, I didn’t dig in deep enough to care and imprint it on my mind. If so, that person failed to understand that ADHD can present with something called hyperfocus in which case that person with ADHD will not only read that one novel but everything ever created by that author. In a week.)

Since I’m pretty sure I have said that writers should read more than once, I figured I’d wade in with some thoughts.

(Quick note that I’m still not approving first-time posters to this blog so if you have thoughts about my thoughts and haven’t posted here before, feel free to share them on your own blog or social media but they won’t end up posted here.)

So. The reason I am writing this post is because one of the people I’ve seen reacting to the initial statement did a long thread today or yesterday about reading and writing.

They spoke about how they currently do not read and used that fact as justification for refuting the writers should read statement.

But in that thread they talked about being an incredibly voracious reader at one point in their life.

And that is a very important difference.

Never having been a reader of novels and expecting to write them versus having at one point read a large number of novels and now wanting to write them even though you don’t read much anymore are two completely different things.

Because what reading novels does for you is it internalizes story structure.

I often see discussions about how long should a chapter be. Or whether or when to use scene breaks. Or how many chapters you should have. Or how long a novel should be.

For me as a writer who came to writing in my mid-30s but who was a lifetime reader, that was never something I had to think about.

Because by the time I sat down to write a novel I had easily read a couple thousand novels. So I had seen a wide variety of chapter lengths and uses of scene breaks. And I had a good intuitive feel for how long the types of novels I wanted to write were.

I was primarily a fantasy reader and my first novel was a multiple viewpoint fantasy novel like many of the ones I had read. The final product came out right there in the accepted range for that type of novel.

And that happened naturally because I had read so much in that genre that I had internalized those lessons about how much to include or not include in the story and what made a good break for the first book in a series.

(Was it perfect? No. But I firmly believe that I was able to write that first novel first draft in six weeks because of the amount of novels I’d been exposed to prior to that.)

Another thing that reading widely gives you is an understanding of what stories have been told in your genre.

Now, this one maybe doesn’t require reading, you can consume movies and TV shows, etc. to see what’s out there instead. But the type and depth of stories that are told in novels are different from, for example, the type and depth of stories told in TV shows. Or in movies for that matter, which often work best when based off of short stories not novels.

A wide exposure to other works lets you understand the difference between something that’s widely used in a genre (dragons) versus something that may have been more unique to a specific author (memory fire).

When that series we don’t name became so popular there were actually readers out there who criticized other series for stealing the idea of wizards going to a boarding school. But that’s been a part of the genre forever. “Reading” widely lets you know what’s out there already and helps spark unique material by giving you more components to recombine.

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that you have to read all the classics of the genre, which is another discussion that often results in strong feelings.

You should try, so you know what’s been written before, but if there’s nothing to connect with in that original work, move on. Life is short.

I personally have tried to read some of the best-known fantasy writers and been bored to death by them. Whatever story they were telling wasn’t one I was there for. Either I’d encountered later works by other authors that took the same story elements but emphasized the things that interested me more, or I just didn’t care about that type of story.

So I’m not saying you have to read everything in your genre. But reading widely does help. And if it’s something you can do, I’d suggest doing it.

Do you have to read to write? Well, no. Not technically. But it seems to me that’s like trying to be a ballerina without taking dance lessons.

(And to circle back to that person who read a lot when younger and now doesn’t but is a writer, that person is like someone who took dance lessons intensively for their entire childhood and now they just rehearse their own works and perform. That’s very different from someone who never took a dance lesson in their life and now wants to get on stage and perform at the age of 40.)