Reading as a Writer

A topic which comes up haphazardly in my sphere is the perils, advantages or just general thoughts of reading as a writer.

While it seems to go without saying that a writer should be well-read, its worth a discussion and some thought.

Firstly I must address what seems to me to be completely bizarre – but a trend of a (hopefully) minority of wannabe writers who don’t read. And I don’t mean writers who maybe don’t read screes, or perhaps have long periods of not reading, or who don’t read novels specifically, I mean people who honestly and genuinely want to write books but have little to no experience reading them and have no plans to change this.

Now typically I try to be a non-judgmental person, we all have our differences and we all have our flaws. But for this group I struggle to maintain sympathy, especially when it seems the majority of these folk are basically television and movie fans who see fiction as an easy out for getting their brilliant ideas seen. Now I have nothing wrong with writers who dream of screen-play deals from their writing (I mean that’s got to be ~80% of us right?) but it seems really daft to take that approach when what you really want is to write screenplays or cartoons.

Anyone point is, writing or wanting to write without reading at least something is pretty odd.

But moving on to the meat of the topic, what is best for a writer? As mentioned above being well-read seems important, although what exactly does that mean and how should a writer approach reading?

Personally I think the first step is to consider the difference between active and passive reading. Technically all reading is active because the whole deal is the words on a page activate your imagination, but one doesn’t always read with great scrutiny or through a readers lens. Again in my experience it isn’t valuable to expect every book to be a writerly revelation and over-studying a text can ruin the enjoyment of it. My approach is to never study a book I plan on enjoying as a reader, at least not until after the first read through. I also don’t necessarily think its viable or useful to ‘study’ read entire novels – by which I mean paying great attention to the prose and structure for the intent of learning – not only is it exhausting to do this for a whole novel it just seems more sensible to pick out what you’re going to look for and focus on specific sections, such as observing the dialogue in a particularly exciting scene.

All this brings me to an interesting point. Again I have a risk of sounding like a massive snob, in many of my discussions with writing buddies they mention that “writing ruins reading” but in my opinion it does the opposite, however not at first.

You see when a novice writer starts picking up “on writing” books and studying the craft one of the first things they learn is about what makes “bad” writing and about newbie mistakes. Then they go out and wonder why on earth so many published and successful books are riddled with those exact errors. This is when writing ruins reading, because as a (and this is my snobby bit) novice the beginner writer tends to obsess over their basic learnings and fail to notice or analyze what makes a successful book so. For example many of my allies mock me for reading books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, and continue to mock when I talk about said book’s strengths. I could go on but the point is that as a writer grows in craft they come to appreciate the strengths and see how obvious flaws either don’t matter as much or can even add to the flavour (in the example of 50 Shades the so-called “bad” writing successfully creates a sense of a down-to-earth protagonist in a ludicrous situation, tweaking the prose to be “good” would have been a bad fit for that story)

So that kind of covers how to read as a writer, but what about being ‘well-read’ and such? Often discussions about what books a writer should read become quite heated and complicated – so what follows are simply my thoughts and opinions not a recipe for success (not that any of my other words necessary are either)

I think it is really valuable to read tonnes in your genre. Some people suggest its better not to because then you’ll be fresher and less freaked out about what other people have done, but I see that as a bit of a head + sand approach. The thing is about writing is it does involve entertainment and reader consumption and not that you can plan your whole project around what reader are going to want, you don’t want to start a 7-epic-book project about several warring families, dragons, back-stabbing with a particular penchant for killing characters (or rather if you do want to rip-off Game of Thrones at least to it intentionally).

It’s not just about keeping up with modern pieces either, being up with the seminal works especially genre setting books is somewhat vital. The benefits of this aren’t just about not being too derivative or being comfortably in the genre its also knowing the tropes to use and abuse them skillfully.

How about outside the genre?

This is a tricky one, books even for the most rabid reader do take a fair whack of time to complete, you can’t simply read every piece in the world, so how does one balance this when selecting books outside your own project’s genre?

Something that I’ve found useful is considering subplots and aspects of a project and how focusing on that genre might help beef them up a little, an obvious example being reading up on romance to help flesh out relationship sub-plots. Equally picking up a horror to kept with some scary parts of a murder mystery, or perhaps an adventure tail to inform the action sections of a fantasy.

Finally somewhat randomly I think its useful to read in completely bonkers works the opposite of not only your projects but what you usually enjoy too? Huh? I think writer’s need an open mind and like I said earlier making sense of what makes a book successful is much more important than avoiding flaws (mostly). Reading outside your comfort zone is far more likely to prompt unexpected learning, after all you don’t know what you don’t know right?

So those are my thoughts on reading as a writer – do you have anything to add?

How do you strike a balance between reading and writing?