Believe it or not, I’ve met would be writers who don’t read. That’s like being a chef who doesn’t eat or a nudist fashion designer. It may sound extreme, but it’s true. You
can’t write, if you don’t read. You cannot have one without the other. They are like light and dark.
Reading is one thing, but reading well is another. I don’t mean that you have to read lofty, literary works, I mean read with your writer’s eyes and mind open. Pay attention to what you’re reading, rather than just consuming a story and moving on to the next thing.
Here is my list of ways to read better to write better:
- Read often: Make a habit of reading. Find those little moments in the day to read. Go to bed 15 minutes early or read while the pasta’s boiling for dinner. Take your book with you, when you go out. Read on the train to work, waiting for a bus and when you’re waiting to meet a friend. Get into the habit of reading and it’ll become second nature.
- Read widely: If you read sci-fi, give it a rest and try something different. Trade those military thrillers for a family saga or a period romance. If all the authors you read are dead, try some contemporary fiction. Look at book prize lists and summer reading lists to find something new. Try some children’s fiction or YA. If all the books you read are by men, read a book by a woman or someone from an ethnicity other than your own. Have you ever read any translated work? No? Then it’s time to go fishing for literature from different countries and cultures. Read comics and poetry and plays. If you always read fiction, read some non-fiction, it might give you an idea for your next book. Everything you read will inform your work, but if you only read what you want to write, your work will become derivative, rather than original.
- Read analytically: When you’re a writer, reading is a bit like going around an art gallery, as an art student. Don’t just read the story, study the structure of the novel and even the individual sentences. How do they create a sense of tension? How does the dialogue seem so effortless? Read to discover what you shouldn’t do. Don’t repeat the mistakes of other authors, you know the ones I mean. Look out for what not to do, as well as absorbing the techniques and skills of authors who show you how it’s done.
- Read for research: If you’re writing a period piece, read novels and diaries from that era. What are the main concerns of people of that time and how do they express themselves? What is the fashion of the day and how do the clothes fasten – zip or buttons? Read science magazines or economic publications to gain ideas for a possible future for that distopian thriller you’re planning.
- Read the classics: Those books we call classics are classics for a reason. They’ve stood the test of time because they tell universal stories or because they made great strides in literature, whether that’s in the form or structure of the novel, the subject matter or the point of view. The Steinbecks and Woolfs and Dostoyevskys of this world all have something to teach you. You may not like them all and that’s okay, but don’t dismiss them as too highbrow or pretentious – they often just tell bloody good stories and just happen to write them with style and panache. What better place to learn?
- Read for pleasure: Don’t get too caught up in the analysis, unless you enjoy it. We’re the only creatures on the planet who can read, so read deeply and read passionately. Read because you love it. If you read, it will inform your writing, whether you know it or not.