Reading for Writers

Matthias Stom painting of a young man reading from c. 1630
“Young Man Reading by Candlelight” Matthias Stom ca.1630. National Museum. Stockholm

I’m one of those writers who came to writing from reading. I never had any intention of “being a writer,” or writing for a living. I wanted to read books. I still love reading, not only the kind of reading where you inhale the pages out of pure narrative lust, but close reading, the kind of reading that is bread-and-butter to any reformed humanities liberal arts graduate.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”—Stephen King. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

It is always a bit of shock to me to meet writers who identify, strongly, as writers, even writers of fiction or poetry (and I am neither), who say they don’t read. I’m not the first person to notice this trend, as this piece in 2011 piece in Salon makes clear. Writers who don’t read aren’t a 21st century creation, so I don’t think it’s the fault of social media, as the Salon piece suggests; I think rather, what seems like a startling increase in the phenomena of writers who don’t read is perhaps more noticeable because more people are interested in writing given the increase in viable self-publishing options.

That said, writing without reading strikes me as problematic. I’ll go out on a limb and say I think it’s mandatory for writers to read if they want to be read. I’m not referring to writers who don’t read while they’re concentrating on writing a particular book, I mean writers who don’t read. Sometimes non-reading writers say they’ve not read a book since leaving school. Some say they never were much interested in reading. Some say they haven’t time to read. They may not read for a variety of reasons, but time and lack of interest are the two reasons for writers not reading that I’ve heard the most.

I’m going to quote Stephen King from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, again, because I think he’s on the money here:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. . . . It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true.”

We work from models; we learn from models, in terms of learning other crafts and how to be adult humans; why should writing be any different?

Close Reading: Reading Closely

That doesn’t mean, as Chuck Wendig notes, that simply consuming text will make you a writer. When I say reading, I’m referring to thoughtful reading, reading of the sort that used to be called close reading. Close reading, or for the French, explication de texte, means reading carefully, analytically and thoughtfully. It is the antithesis of speed reading. Speed reading is about consuming. Speed reading is about eating as much as you can and swallowing it rapidly, even if it makes you queasy. 1) Woody Allen quipped “I took a speed reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.” See also: Speed Reading: I Was Able To Go Through ‘War and Peace’ in 20 Minutes. It’s About Russia

Close reading means looking at the language, looking at how the words function in the sentence, how the sentences function in the paragraph, and the ideas and concepts conveyed by the language. It means looking at the language, at the text, in terms of rhetoric, the way idioms and metaphors and tropes and schemes and figures are used to emphasize ideas, feelings and concepts. In other words, the techniques that you probably use when you read and think about poetry will work for any text, whether it’s the back of a cereal box, an article in Newsweek, a novel by Agatha Christie, or Ursula Le Guin, a poem, or a book review. Read as if it’s all important. Wendig puts it this way:

You don’t learn to write through reading anymore than you learn carpentry by sitting on a chair. You learn to write by writing. And, when you do read something, you learn from it by dissecting it — what is the author doing? How are characters and plot drawn together? You must read critically — that is the key.

Reading critically; reading actively, are key. That doesn’t mean you can’t read for plot or for sheer enjoyment, it does mean you need to pay attention as you read (or after) in terms of why you enjoy it (or don’t enjoy it). What’s stimulating your narrative lust? Why do you want to turn the page?

If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but didn’t have time to read, I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” — Stephen King. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Find time to read.

We spend a fair amount of time waiting. Waiting at the doctor’s office. Standing in line at the DMV. Those ten minutes or half-hours while you’re waiting for something else are perfect for reading.

Even if you can only read half an hour a day before you go to sleep, that’s several books a year. Reading allows you to think about words and writing without having to be responsible for them. You can discover how to write as you work on understanding what someone else has written. How does it work? Where does it not work for you, and why?

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Then write. If it’s good, you’l find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” — William Faulkner—University of Mississippi, 1947

Read Widely

I’m not one of those who advocates reading “only the best,” or “only canon literature.” I think writers should read widely and voraciously. Take a book and a notebook (or use an ereader app and a note taking app on your phone) everywhere you go.

As we read, whether it’s fiction, or poetry or non-fiction, our brains are paying attention to words and sentences and themes and language. We are absorbing and integrating as we process; reading widely educates our writerly palate just as trying a wide variety of food or wine educates our more conventional palate.  Writer Susan Wittig Albert, in suggesting new writers follow Faulkner’s advice notes that “There’s a trick, though. You do need to read to ‘see how they do it’—something like taking the watch apart to see how it ticks, rather than using it to tell time.” That’s a good reason for re-reading books you’ve read before, even many times before.

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” — Oscar Wilde  

Reading a book for the second (or the nth) time allows us to see it differently. While the text before us is the same, we as readers have changed. We have read other things. We have had new experiences, so that the text we read now is not, exactly the same to us as we re-read. We are not the readers we were. Sometimes that means the suck fairy visits, but more often, re-reading exposes an even more interesting and intricate text.

Cressida Downing notes that

If you want to write, and get your work read, you need to know about the process of reading, about the excitement and fascination a reader can get out of a book, you need to learn about that connection.

Read widely, and read attentively. Ask yourself why a writer chose this word or that, notice the patterns, whether patterns of language or thought, or structure. What makes you want to continue reading? What makes you want to stop?2) I freely give permanent dispensation to readers who want to stop reading a particular book; and try it again later, if they want.

If you want to get back to reading, the first thing to do is make sure you always have something nearby to read. Books are portable, even printed (perhaps especially printed books). Consider an AW reading challenge. Read and discuss Vernor Vinge’s Hugo Award winning SF novel A Fire Upon the Deep  along with other AWers (discussion starts June 1; grab the free ebook now). There are always book reccs in AW’sBook Club forum. AW’s SF/F readers post about What we’re reading. If it’s been a while since you read a book, consider a book you loved in years past as a re-read.When you read something good, a book, a poem, an essay, an article or a blog post, tell others about it. Start tracking your reading in a book journal, or a book lover’s social site like Library Thing, BookLikes or GoodReads.

References   [ + ]

1.  Woody Allen quipped “I took a speed reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.” See also: Speed Reading: I Was Able To Go Through ‘War and Peace’ in 20 Minutes. It’s About Russia
2. I freely give permanent dispensation to readers who want to stop reading a particular book; and try it again later, if they want.