Monday, November 9, 2009

Does Reading Make You a Better Writer?

I've only read three books this year, far less than I normally do. Why? Because I've been busy writing. I've written more than three full novels (am 1/3 of the way through a fourth) since last fall. Writing takes time. Lots of time.

Everyone says reading makes you a better writer, but is this true? Let me clarify: We all fall in love with reading BEFORE we become writers. Reading great books is what sparks the desire to write. However, after you've read many, many books and analyzed them, gotten a grasp of pacing, plot, character development, etc., I don't think the need is there as much.

Don't get me wrong. I love to read as much as the next gal. Falling under the spell of a unique setting with intriguing characters is one of the greatest treats I give myself. But, I'm not fully convinced that reading at this stage of the game makes me a better writer. I think writing makes me a better writer. Writing a lot. And, when you're writing a lot, you don't have much time to read.

I know this will put a lot of you in an uproar - panties in a wad, lampshade on your head, screaming like a wild banshee in the streets, etc., etc. Just please, people - for the sake of the neighbors and all that is good and sacred in the world - keep your clothes on!

Blasphemy! You'll say. She's lost your mind! She's gone completely mad! Maybe. Maybe not.

Chime in, my friends. How does reading help you become a better writer? I've got my boxing gloves on. I can take it.

IN OTHER NEWS:
Feel free to check out my new Examiner.com article on the young, talented, beautiful, and funny (if you saw SNL this weekend, you'll know what I'm talking about) Taylor Swift.

73 comments:

Dan Krokos said...

Reading absolutely makes you a better writer.

However, overall, writing is 100X more important. Writing > Reading.

But I don't know any writers who didn't get there by being avid readers. I myself read a hundred books or so before I wanted to try it out myself.

Reading gets you familiar with narrative and pace. I KNOW books now. I can read one and know exactly what the author is going for at all times, kind of like Neo when he sees the code of the Matrix.

But if you're pressed for time, as we all are, I'd sit down to writer rather than read a book. Best is when you can do both. A lot.

In my opinion, of course.

Ruthanne Reid said...

Naw, it isn't blasphemy - I just feel the need to point out that you'd have no idea what good writing WAS if you hadn't encountered it first. :D

That's the reason we need to read, not JUST write. That way we can see what works and what doesn't, feed our artistic brains, and (sometimes very importantly) wrestle with the fact that ideas we have may or may not have been done before.

DebraLSchubert said...

Dan, I totally agree. You MUST read a lot before you can consider becoming a serious writer. But, once you "get" pacing, plot, building tension, creating interesting characters, I think the "need" to read is lessened and the "need" to write is heightened. Then again, maybe that's exactly what you're saying.

DebraLSchubert said...

Ruthanne, Again, agreed. We must read FIRST. But then, we must buckle down and write, write, write! ;-)

Aidan Donnelley Rowley said...

Interesting, complicated question. I am not sure there is a one-size-fits-all answer though. For me, it is when I am in the middle of someone else's book, that my own writing comes alive. There is something about immersing myself in another story, the world of a foreign protagonist, that makes the world I am trying to create in my own story, emerge. When I am having a hard time writing, I start reading. Works every time.

That said, there is only so much time in a day. If we spend all of it reading others' books and blogs, we are not spending it writing on our own stories. How much should we devote to self and other (and simply living in the world which is full of incomparable material)? I have no idea. But these questions are very important. Hugely important.

Thanks for the post!

Dan Krokos said...

Yep, that's what I was saying, Deb!

I haven't had a coffee yet. And I'm editing.

You nailed it though, need to read goes down once you've learned the basics.

DebraLSchubert said...

Aidan, Interesting that you get your inspiration from other stories. Wonderful, really. Thanks for your insightful comment. ;-)

Elise said...

What a gorgeous picture ! I definately think that you have to read a lot to be a good writer. It's not always possible to find enough time but I think it's crucial to the creative process.

great post !

Solvang Sherrie said...

I can't not read. I've always got a book with me for the down times when I'm waiting for kids at soccer or a doctor's appointment. When I'm writing, I love to analyze the rhythm of books I enjoy, see how the author has made the characters come alive for me. But writing makes you a better writer. The more you do it, the better you become.

DebraLSchubert said...

Elise, Glad you like the pic! It's interesting hearing what inspires my fellow readers. For me, being present in life is the greatest inspiration. That and dreaming. ;-)

DebraLSchubert said...

Sherrie, It's fascinating to see how other writers "put it all together." There's always something to learn from that. ;-)

Jenni said...

I think that's kind of like saying you can be a great chef even if you don't eat anyone's food but your own. Most truly great chefs will tell you that they sample other restaurants all the time. I think if you aren't reading you risk becoming stagnant, you're missing out on other flavors and innovations. Of course you aren't going to open someone else's book and copy their paragraphs and phrases right into your own, but just seeing how someone else manipulates language, experiencing the tones and ideas of other writers, is very valuable. I can't even tell you how many times I've been reading (between writing sessions, of course) and had one of those moments like, "Yes! Sprouted! That's the exact word I've been looking for. Why didn't I think of that?" To put it back into non-writing terms, it would be a like a chef working on a new dish who realizes, while eating something totally different, that perfect ingredient to bring the whole thing together. If he hadn't surrendered to someone else's creativity, he might never have figured it out and his own recipe would suffer.

It's not all nuts and bolts. Truly great writing is much more subtle than that. And I think it requires fully immersing yourself in the written word. In every way possible. I think you can put together sentences and paragraphs and chapters no matter how well-read you are. But I think that if you aren't reading you are missing out on more than you know. And I think that will show up in your writing.

Karen Walker said...

For me, it varies. I am almost always in the midst of a book, but I don't necessarily pick it up each day. It depends on how the day goes. But reading definitely inspires me to write. Sometimes it's because I think I can do better than what I am reading. Sometimes because it inspires me to do better because of the richness of what I am reading. I just don't think it's a, well I've read enough now I don't need to read anymore to know how to write kind of a thing. I will always be a reader.
Karen

Paul said...

Reading builds a great foundation for writing. I don't read because I want to write. I read because I love to read.

And since I've been writing full-time I do read less. When I'm writing a first draft I tend to stay away from novels in my genre because I don't want to cloud the voice that I'm trying to create.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Nothing makes you a better writer than writing. That said, reading a well written book gives you inspiration and wonderful lessons. I'm finding I'm reading books not in the genre I write, both for a needed break and as examples of how to write certain situations.

I find other writers' vocabulary choices fascinating. I also like examining how the book is structured and how the writer writes their characters. Getting away from my writing and reading only improves my own.

Elspeth

Jenni said...

The other side of this coin, karmically, is that you want there to be a solid publishing industry so that you can be part of it. But if you refuse to read then you aren't doing your part to sustain the printers who will print your novel or the shops that will sell it. It's like saying, "I'm not going to spend MY money on books but everyone else should." There does have to be some amount of give if you aspire to take.

Jennifer Shirk said...

Yeah, I really do think reading makes you a better writing. And writing makes you a better writer, too. :)

Wendy Sparrow said...

You've stated my feelings exactly and better than I've been able to. I read in between books, and I read like a mad thing before I started writing. Still, writing has become more important to me than reading. I buy books--for other people--and sometimes for me.

Writing has also become a greater stress reliever for me. It used to be reading. The characters and stories in my head demand their time, so if I'm going to spend eight hours a day doing anything--it'll be writing.

Julie said...

Jenni's first post really sums up my opinion on the subject, but I've done both. A year of almost totally writing and now this year with reading (about 50 books so far) and writing as well. Reading has made me a better writer and reminds me what the goal is for creating a world my readers can disappear into.

And about Jenni's second post, as Debbie's BFF, I have to say that she in no way meant to imply that she wasn't buying books... she's got stacks and is completely karmically sound in that aspect. ;)

Jenni said...

@ Julie - Okay, good! I used to always assume the writers bought books or at least donated to their local libraries once in a while. I only recently learned that that wasn't always true and it was a total "Wha-wha-whaaaaaat???" moment for me.

But, karma intact, the wheel keeps spinning. :)

DebraLSchubert said...

Jenni, Thanks so much for your detailed comments. On many levels, I agree with you. But still, right now I think my time is better spent writing. As Julie said, I have a stack of books the size of Texas on my nightstand, so buying books isn't the issue. Reading, these days, is.

Using the chef analogy, right now, my journey is four tablespoons writing and one teaspoon reading. ;-)

DebraLSchubert said...

Karen, I'm with you. I'm almost always in the middle of a book, I'm just reading at a slower pace due to the amount I'm writing. And yes, of course, there's always more to learn, more pearls of wisdom to gleam. Thank goodness for all the brilliant writers out there!!! ;-)

DebraLSchubert said...

Paul, I agree with you 100%! I especially liked what you said about writing: "When I'm writing a first draft I tend to stay away from novels in my genre because I don't want to cloud the voice that I'm trying to create."

Stephanie Faris said...

I think reading provides the foundation for the writers we become. We get the feel for how a commercial piece of fiction should be done...it becomes almost instinctive, over time. Is it necessary to read all the time to be a good writer? Heck no. I think it helps...but I think it's different for each person. Some people might feel that reading interrupts their own creative flow, for instance. For me it seems to spark my creativity somehow. I can't tell you how many times I'm reading along and something just clicks for me in regards to my current work in progress. Or a new book idea occurs to me. I'll jump up and write it down, then go back to reading.

DebraLSchubert said...

Elspeth, I'm with you. We writers are detectives in many ways, investigating how other writers turn a phrase or flesh out a character. Those are, indeed, priceless lessons you can only glean from reading.

DebraLSchubert said...

Jennifer, Reading and writing rock. Ah, something, we can all agree on!!

DebraLSchubert said...

Wendy, There's absolutely nothing I can add to your comment. Simply put, it's perfect. ;-)

DebraLSchubert said...

Julie, You're my BFF for so many reasons. You read more than anyone I know, so I feared you might never talk to me again after reading this post. But, you "get" me. That's why we're BFF's. Hugs back atcha, gf!

DebraLSchubert said...

Stephanie, "I think reading provides the foundation for the writers we become." I love that - so true. In order to be a good writer, you have to be a voracious reader. I've been that most of my life. It's just that lately, while I've been deep in the "writing zone," I've needed no outside distractions. You hit the nail on the head when you said, "Some people might feel that reading interrupts their own creative flow..." Yup. That explains where I'm at right now. Thanks for articulating it so well.

WendyCinNYC said...

I read every single day, so I absolutely think it makes me a better writer. Without a doubt. But if it doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you.

I do, however, think it's essential to know the market well once you start seeking publication.

Rissa Watkins said...

I do find when I am in the middle of writing, I read less.

Also, I worry I might let a book influence what I am writing.

Plus there is a practical aspect- there are only so many hours in the day. I have to give up something to write and the husband and kid are more important than my reading addiction.

So I agree with you, love of reading is what made me want to become a writer, but putting the books down for a little bit will enable me to do the actual writing.

WendyCinNYC said...

(and by "you," I mean the generalized you, not you personally!)

DebraLSchubert said...

Wendy, Agreed, knowing the market is imperative. I'm just finding I'm enjoying writing so much lately that it's all I want to do. My stack of waiting-to-be-read-books on my nightstand is glaring at me as I write this. ;-)

DebraLSchubert said...

Rissa, There are only so many hours in a day, and when I read I get VERY wrapped up in the story. Right now, I'd rather be wrapped up in my own stories. I look forward to reading as soon as the demanding muse decides to lighten up. ;-)

Lola Lakely said...

The more you read, the more you learn. And I think that makes you infinitely better as a writer. But this also depends on what you are reading. Everyone benefits from reading research on the topic that they choose to write about. It makes characters, settings, and plot much more real.

DebraLSchubert said...

Lola, Good points. My current fiction writing doesn't require a lot of research, but reading is always a learning experience.

Kelly said...

Yes, reading makes you a better writer. Do you need to be the most well read person on the block to be the better writer? No. But you do need to be up on what is published now, read the classics, and read your genre. I wouldn't sacrifice lots of writing time to read, but I do think that you should make some time a week (month?) to read for pleasure (and for research). Besides writing because we love it, aren't we writing books so someone else can read it?
Great article on Taylor!!!!

DebraLSchubert said...

Kelly, "Besides writing because we love it, aren't we writing books so someone else can read it?" Yup! But if you don't write the book, it can't be read. Glad you liked the article on Taylor! ;-)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

A reading PAST is very important. Unfortunately, for those of us with deadlines, a reading PRESENT is more of a luxury we have to cram into our life. I'd love to read more--it's my favorite thing to do...probably even more than writing. But right now I just don't have the time.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

DebraLSchubert said...

Elizabeth, That's what I mean! Writing comes first. Plain and simple. Reading is the luxury. ;-)

Jessie Sams said...

I think my writing would falter if I didn't keep reading--reading reminds me to get out of my own little world and think of the audience. I've read tons of books and fallen in love with them (which has inspired me to write), yet the simple lessons I've learned from them are easily forgotten. I think reading later in the stage of being a writer (as in once you've already established yourself) helps you define your voice without becoming stale. For me, reading stretches my imagination to think what else I could accomplish in my own voice. Then again, I can't imagine not reading--even if it's re-reading a book I've read five times before.

I also agree, though, that reading is no substitute for actually picking up a pen or computer or typewriter (or any other writing device) and writing. I would say good writing is 75% writing practice and 25% reading. Or maybe 60/40...

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

I believe you need to do both...read and write lots every day and both will help you to become a better writer.

DebraLSchubert said...

Jessie, Reading other people's work definitely expands your horizons, however, I agree w/Paul - when I'm writing I like to be in my own little world. I think it keeps the voice and story more authentically "mine."

DebraLSchubert said...

Donna, I'm impressed with writers who read while in the middle of writing. It's hard for me. I'd rather focus on getting the words down & read during writing breaks.

Jemi Fraser said...

I read voraciously as a child, teen and younger adult. Now, there just isn't the time if I want to write - and I do. I think it is a matter of time priorities. If you want to be a writer, you need to spend many, many hours on the craft. I'd love to spend more time reading, but that would mean giviing up writing - and I can't do it :)

DebraLSchubert said...

Jemi, EXACTLY!!!

Jill said...

After age 7 or 8, we build our vocabulary by reading. I think even now reading exposes me to new words and turns of phrases to which I am not exposed in everyday conversation or television.

And even at 50, as much as I have read since I learned how at age 4, I have not read every classic, every well-written modern novel or even most of the mediocre ones. Though not as much as my own, I very much still enjoy escaping into someone else's tale and learning about new places and cultures.

And those things I cannot personally experience but to which I can be exposed through reading *do* enhance my ability to write. Or what is "research"?

DebraLSchubert said...

Jill, Well put. Reading is a way to further our exposure to new and inspirational ways of writing. I soon may have to raise a white flag... ;-)

Ray Veen said...

You make a good point. Normally I don't read too much when I'm in the middle of a big writing push, but then I need to sometimes, because I forget how writing is supposed to sound.

Does that make sense?

DebraLSchubert said...

Ray, That totally makes sense! I'll be writing sometimes and think, "does this sound anything like a REAL book is supposed to sound?" HA!!

Sharon Mayhew said...

If you didn't love good books, you would've ever wanted to write them. It doesn't mean you have to read the "classics," it means you have to love books. I have a feeling that even though you've only read three books this year, you know what you like. I love books (kid's) that make me feel or see things in a different light. I love reading current stuff. But, the classics are not who we are today...here in America....

Caroline Starr Rose said...

It absolutely makes you better. You can't help but soak in plot, chapter structure, character arcs, so many things.

As I used to tell my students, good reading leads to good thinking, and good thinking leads to good writing.

DebraLSchubert said...

Sharon, True. A love of reading is what sparks, in some of us, the desire to write. You're right - I do know what I like to read, and it's similar to what I like to write. Makes sense, write? I mean, right? ;-)

DebraLSchubert said...

Caroline, "...good reading leads to good thinking, and good thinking leads to good writing." Brilliant. Your students were lucky to have you.

Sharon Mayhew said...

Absolutely right! I love what I read and I couldn't imagine trying to write anything else.

Julie said...

Okay, so I've got another thought on the subject, so I'm diving back in. If you feel like you "have" to read to be a better writer, then definitely your time is better spent writing. Reading is about falling in love, over and over and over; it's not about all those right-brained obligations and rules. I have flings with books (even non-fiction) and they illuminate my perspective. They are my holiday, my companionship, and sometimes my most available friends. Books are a blessing and if you would feel torn from your great love Writing, then leave the flings to people like me. But, if you ever hit a sticky point when you aren't sure why you are putting in all the time and effort to your writing, maybe it's time to go looking for love in all the right pages (as I like to say).

Angie Ledbetter said...

Yes, reading does make a better writer. No matter your creative or professional pursuit, you need continuing education to stay abreast and to keep improving.

DebraLSchubert said...

Julie, "Looking for love in all the right pages." Classic. Don't faint, but I'm reading a book right now. I'm taking a short break from the editing I'm about to do, so I figured, why not? ;-))

DebraLSchubert said...

Angie, Why do you always have to be so right about everything? It's kind of annoying. (*hugs*)

CLFagan said...

Reading is the joy and escape you get when you’re not writing, or in my case re-writing. I agree with you, after you understand and learn the craft by education and of course reading lots, you have to get down to it and create. Write, write, and rewrite. I used to read three or four books a week, at least, now I am lucky if I can read one book a month, as, I have just published my first novel, "Lightning Strikes the Colonies."

مى said...

I love this! Right on target. I think they ARE connected. Very much so. Where else would you get the tools to write something of your own?

I'm afraid I'll have to disagree about Taylor Swift. I'm not particularly fond of her. Jealousy? Maybe (:

Lisa Katzenberger said...

For me, reading makes me a better writer. When I get stuck with my current WIP, I often sit down to read. And there's been plenty of times where a few pages later I pop off the couch and back to the computer with a clear idea of how to fix my writing problem. Words clear my head, whether I'm reading or writing them. In the end though, reading just makes me an all around happier person.

GhostFolk.com said...

Reading all the time as a way of:

Studying story structure. When you want to learn the hard stuff, read the best at it you can find.

I also get a lot of information on story structure by reading a novel and watching the movie made from the novel. Screenwriters routinely do one thing better than novelists: story.

If you can start to see where screenwrites improved the story in, say, The Firm, you have learned a lot that will help you create compelling story no matter what you write.

I am interested in how successful authors bring interwoven subplots to a climactic conclusion at the same time and often in the same scene with the climactic conclusion of the main story arc.

Koontz does it all the time. So does Hiaassen.

What Carrie and The Vampire Diaries have in common when it comes to story structure is, for instance, something you can learn by reading.

GhostFolk.com said...

Ah, heck. What I meant to say was, when you don't have time to read, maybe you can watch a movie.

DebraLSchubert said...

Ace, Nice to "see" you here and congrats on the book!!!

DebraLSchubert said...

said, No offense taken. Taylor's not my personal favorite by a long shot, but she sure has touched a nerve in the music world and w/her fans at such a young age. I greatly admire that. ;-)

DebraLSchubert said...

Lisa, Good point. Read not only when you have time, but when you need the inspiration! And, yes. Reading is one of the greatest joys in life. ;-)

DebraLSchubert said...

GF, Loved all your comments, especially the one about watching a movie!!!

Jill Kemerer said...

What a pretty blog!

Janet Evanovich gave a speech this summer and she said she rarely reads. And hmmm...she's a best-seller.

I do read a lot, though. It's my favorite hobby. I can't imagine not reading!

DebraLSchubert said...

Jill, Yes, Janet E. does have a knack for selling books! Glad you like the blog. ;-)

kanishk said...

But if you're pressed for time, as we all are, I'd sit down to writer rather than read a book. Best is when you can do both.


Work From Home India

Jenn McKay said...

Reading does make you a better writer, but that doesn't mean you have to read every second of the day.

I go through phases where I have to read all the new books, and then I go through phases where I don't read anything but news and menus.

I completely agree with Paul - staying in touch with your character's voice is easier when you aren't reading about another character.

Good post!

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