Summer Reading Series: Reading for Writers

Reading for Writers

This may seem like the proverbial “preaching to the choir” post. Why worry about writers reading?

Years ago I read an article by an aspiring writer about how he just didn’t have the time to read much more than news articles. And, he didn’t need to. It made me so hopping furious I tried writing about it but couldn’t separate my contempt from what I was trying to say. It made me mad because his writing was absurd-almost terrible even-and the arguments looped all over the place. At one point he argued for and against the same thing. I. Can’t. Even.

And I won’t. But it did force me to reckon with the question: why is reading books so important for writers to do? I came up with a short list for myself. I’d love to hear how other writers have understood reading books to benefit their writing. Here’s what I have so far…

  • Editing – I can usually read a sentence out loud and determine if it “works” or not. That doesn’t mean I always fix it. I’m lazy sometimes. I’m uninterested sometimes. I can’t work out a solution right away sometimes. But, I can hear it. Because I’ve read so many sentences that are good, the bad ones stand out.
  • Word choice – I’m a fan of unusual words. I’ve gotten bit-by-bit better at using a “regular” word instead of an “SAT” word when regular will do. Words are fun, and I love to see them decorate a page, but it is true that when they are abused they are distracting and at times, annoying. Not the words per se, but the writers who use them too often. As writers, the French idea of le mot juste, the uniquely right word or phrase for the exact sentiment you wish to include, is worth pursuing. Sometimes that’s a “fancy” word and sometimes it’s “regular.” Developing the ability to distinguish the difference comes more from reading a lot than it does from writing a lot.
  • Punctuation – I’m perhaps too liberal with my punctuation marks. I used to be worse. If writing in parentheses was the mark of a great writer, then I have hit genius-level several times over. I read a book, wish I could remember which one, where there were a few parentheses within parentheses-maybe even another within parentheses-and I was annoyed. Oops. Reading it in my writing seemed inspired. Reading it elsewhere made me temporarily consider plucking the keys from my keyboard and tossing it out the window. I do, however, agree in theory (if not always in practice) with F. Scott Fitzgerald who is attributed with saying: “Cut out all the exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
  • Structure – Before I started writing fiction I paid little attention to the structure of a novel. Now I’m looking at dialogue-to-description ratio. What makes a book work? What aspects of books do I notice because they don’t “fit?” Is the structure designed to emphasize one idea over another? What does POV contribute or limit in a story? Not only has this influenced my understanding of effective writing and storytelling, but it has also added a level of depth to my reading that was absent before.
  • Adverbs – Stephen King and Mark Twain have strong feelings about adverbs. I attended English classes in high school where the word “very” was anathema to my teachers. I cringe when I write the word—poor thing. I’ve discovered my own propensity for writing the word “just” in places where it is unnecessary. I may have to write a post advocating for these maligned words, but they can be obnoxious. When you read them over and over again, you start to see how they weaken writing. If in doubt, follow Mark Twain’s advice and write “damn” for every time you want to write “very” and the editor will cross it out and the piece will be the way it’s supposed to be. (Sidenote: I’ve never asked, but I’m not sure editors appreciate this as much as Mr. Twain seems to think. Take the advice with caution.)

If you are a writer, whether you want to be published or not, your craft will improve by immersing yourself in the tomes of those who have gone before.

The obvious starting spot is to read in your genre. Read whatever genre you aspire to write in. If you want to write thrillers, read thrillers. If you want to write children’s books, read children’s books. If you want to write contemporary fiction, read contemporary fiction. If you want to write a book that is included in the literary canon of your day, then read the works that have made it in years past. And on and on. I can’t think of an exception.

But don’t stop there. Your brain will need a rest at some point. You’ll start to see patterns and styles within your sphere that will numb your brain temporarily. That’s a good time to branch out. Find a book in another realm and try it out. Keep trying. Keep reading. Of course, when you feel ready to go to your specialty, go ahead. But don’t neglect to mix it up. It will improve your critique skills and freshen your own writing.

How have you seen your reading influence your writing for better or worse?

10 thoughts on “Summer Reading Series: Reading for Writers

  1. These are great points. I think it’s true that the more you read, the more you pick up on what does and doesn’t work. I’m still a learner, however. I’m an exclamation point over-user, but usually only in social media. I’m going to restrain myself here. But it’s certainly not as much fun for me to leave them out. Sigh…

    1. Haha – the exclamation point seems to be a point of contention. My preference is to use them sparingly in “serious” or “professional” spaces, but in comments, social media, texts, and other informal writing I indulge without remorse!!

  2. I can’t imagine writing without the reading that must come before it. When I first ‘became a writer’ (many many years ago), I took a published author’s advice and read a book by an author I admired, and then wrote a story in that writer’s style. I did that with three different authors. Really helped me be aware of style – theirs, and my own.

    1. What a challenging exercise! I could see that revealing a lot of useful insight. I’m going to tuck that away for future reference. Thanks for sharing that.

  3. I am most grateful for learning the phrase “le mot juste”, and least grateful to hear exclamation points are off limits. Enjoyed reading this it challenges and inspires me.

    1. Hahaha – I mean, it really only makes sense if you think it’s bad to laugh at your own jokes 😉 So…exclamation points with friends and family is a better guideline since I have no qualms about laughing at my own jokes in those situations 😂😂!!!

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