Read, I Say—Read!
“I don’t have time to read,” I tell myself as I sit down with my cat and watch another episode or three of The Blacklist. “I wouldn’t know which book to choose from my TBR pile,” I say as I scroll through Tumblr or watch how licorice is made or shop on Etsy for things I absolutely cannot afford to buy right now.
We all get in those ruts, don’t we? We’re working, or in school, or working and in school; we have obligations and housework, family and friends to visit on the weekends, errands to run, children to care for, pets to tend to, a sick relative, a long commute. And if we’re writers and not just book lovers, what precious free time we have is devoted to parking our butts in a chair and writing for an hour here and there. There’s no time to read.
Except there is, and there should be—especially if you’re a writer. If you want to continue to grow as a writer, reading shouldn’t be just a pastime; it should be imperative.
Reading keeps your brain in an actively imaginative, critically thinking state. When we read, we make connections, inferences, and get inspired. It increases emotional intelligence and helps us better understand and empathize with people. This, in turn, will help you create characters that jump off the page and speak to your readers.
If you want to improve as a writer, you need to read what other writers have put out there. This will help you absorb other techniques and writing styles, fire up your own creativity with a beautiful turn of phrase or well-rounded character, and remember what it is to appreciate a good story. You’ll get a feel for different narrative structures, smooth transitions, great (or even poor) character development, and how you, as a reader, react to these things.
If you’re worried about copying another writer’s style, don’t—seeing what’s already been done will give you ideas on what hasn’t been done, or what could be done, except with your own personal spin (as discussed in a previous post). Getting exposed to other writing styles will help you develop your own. Read authors you admire deeply and attentively and explore what it is about their style and stories that bring you back again and again.
Now, go beyond your favorite authors and your favorite genres, and read wide. I’m not saying you have to crack open a book in a genre you really can’t stand, but…maybe it wouldn’t hurt. For the longest time, I was convinced that I was not a big fan of the mystery genre.
Cozy mysteries didn’t really catch my interest, and reading a lot of questionable manuscripts during my time as an editorial assistant intern with a small press that preferred cozy mysteries kind of turned me off from the genre as a whole. Which is kind of funny, since Nancy Drew was my girl back in middle school.
Then I took a literary genre class in college that focused on the mystery genre, because I loved the professor and I trusted her taste in books. I rediscovered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, read James Cain, and fell in love with the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers, after reading Strong Poison. I discovered my preferences within a genre that I had largely generalized and not given a chance beforehand, and I’m glad I did.
Pick up a science fiction novel even if you’ve never cared for them but can’t remember the last time you read one; dabble in fantasy, check out a Booker Prize winner, give YA a shot. Urban fantasy, romance (contemporary and historical), crime fiction, horror—see what authors are doing in these genres and how they’re shaping them.
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. — Stephen King
So how do you find time to read? You make time—just as you make time to write. Reading can easily fall by the wayside with a busy schedule, so keep a book within arm’s reach if you can. I make sure I always have a work-in-progress book in my bag when I take the train anywhere or go out of town. I read in the hour I would have spent re-watching an episode of Stranger Things, or right before bed, or in the waiting room for a doctor’s visit. I created TBR (to-be-read) jars, separated into three broad genres, so I can choose a random book from my shelves that I haven’t read based on what mood I’m in. Sometimes I don’t pick up a book because I don’t know what to read, and that helps. If you have kids, read out loud to them. When my godson was a wee babe, I would walk the floor with him and read to him from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Join a book club! Don’t have time for brick-and-mortar meet-ups? Join an online book club, because they’re totally a thing!
Audiobooks count, too. No really. According to science and a psychologist named Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia, listening to a book is not cheating. The mental processes are the same for reading and listening comprehension. It may not give you the pleasure and ability to study the words on the page, but you do get to hear dialogue, which could in turn help you craft your own realistic dialogue. Listen to a book in a car, on your commute, at the grocery store (I have a coworker who does this), at the laundromat—wherever strikes your fancy.
You only have your writing career at stake.