Monday 25 June 2012

The Real Reason Writers Need To Read

There’s a specific skill you gain from reading widely — not just the stuff you like — that is an essential tool to becoming a better writer.

Critiquers, beta readers, editors, they read your WIP and offer you advice and opinion and maybe even suggest solutions. But how do you know if they’re right? 

And what about when different people offer you conflicting advice? Who’s right then?

What’s to say they’re not all talking a big pile of poo?

Chances are they aren’t a best-selling author, and even if they are, what works for them may not be right for you.

It's not that hard to sort out.

You will already have experienced an occasion when someone has suggested a critical opinion on your story, and inside your head you’ve gone... Ah, of course. Or a No way! Either of these responses are helpful.

Problem is, this might not happen very often. Usually all you get is... Hmm, maybe.

What you want is an increase in the occasions when you instantly know an idea is going to improve your story or not.

That would be helpful, right?

Only, the problem isn’t with the quality of the suggestion. It’s with you ability to appreciate what making that change will mean. 

Any change, even a small one, will have ramifications for the whole story, but you won’t be able to gauge the usefulness of those changes if you can’t tell what they’re going to be. And the idea of writing it all up to see if it maybe works is  a big risk to take.

If you’ve read broadly enough, when someone suggests a problem with your story, your brain will cross-reference it with all the stories in your head (without you being aware of it) and you will know what the reader means and what the implications are for your story.


It’s not an exact science, but you’ll have a pretty good idea. Good enough to make a call on whether it’s going to be worth pursuing.

And the more you read, the more genres and styles you open yourself up to, the easier it gets. Even reading books you don’t enjoy will still aid the growth of this ability. Reading the exact same sort of book over and over will not.

So, if you want to be a successful reader, read what you like. If you want to be a successful writer, read what you like, and what you don’t like. And read everything else, too. 
 If you found this post interesting, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Karen Jones Gowen said...

I'm reading a book right now, Tender Graces by Kathryn Magendie, that is absolutely so wonderfully written and plotted and crafted that it makes me want to write every second, to see if I can write even one little bit as well.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I guess that's why most of the suggestions from my test readers and critique partners spark an instant reaction. (Usually it's "Of course!")

Gail said...

I read and try to write but have difficulty in fleshing out a story. Short is as big as it gets.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said... what you don't like? I gotta think about that one.

Hard enough to find the time to read what fits my gentle sensibilities *snort*

I vomit a lung any time I read a few paragraphs of literary fiction in a critique. I can't imagine reading a whole novel.

But you've injected a challenge.

- Mac

Rusty Carl said...

Great point. I'm dealing with some conflicting advice at the moment myself. Glad to know I can read my way out of the problem.

mooderino said...

@Karen-inspiration is also another benefit.

@Alex-I suspected you were a well read ninja.

@Gail-some writers stick with shorts their whole lives, nothing wrong with that.

@Mac - you can still pick and choose. Or there are short stories.

@Rusty-conflicting, the most evil of all the advices.

Daisy Carter said...

What an excellent post. I love to read, even outside my favorite genre, and I always think, "hey, this is helping me learn craft." I've never considered that it would help me know what crit suggestions to take or not. Such a great point! Will be linking tomorrow!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I read a variety of books. The biggest thing that I learn from reading so much is how other authors tell their stories. I can kind of compare mine after I've let it sit for a while and see if I am similar. I also can spot things I don't like and try to avoid those same pitfalls in my own writing. The third thing I learn is how to better my vocabulary. I learn so many sentence structures and words by simply reading. So yes, I agree with you. It's time well spent.

Dia said...

Exactly! I started reading a novel earlier in the week and got hit in the face with inspiration about the novel I was suppose to be working on but stopped. A lot of the time, I got inspiration or ideas from the books that I read or the movies that I watch.

When I first started writing back in 6th grade, I didn't read. Hadn't read one book. I didn't realize you had to have quotes around what people were saying or how to use a semi-colon or anything like that. Once I started reading, my writing got better too.

cleemckenzie said...

Anytime I'm stuck, I dive into a book . . . any book. There's something so freeing in reading what someone else has written. It unclogs my writer brain. Great post.

Nancy Thompson said...

I wholeheartedly embrace this logic. During the months I was writing my first book, I didn't read anything. It wasn't until I started critiquing and reading other books again that I recognized what was lacking or what was done incorrectly in my own work. I like to think of it as exercise for the brain, to get it into shape to write. There;s nothing better for it!

mooderino said...


@Michael-and i agree with you.

@Dia-I'm still not too sure about semi-colons.

@clee-me too. Freeing is exactly how I would describe it too.

@Nancy-nothing like a good workout.

LD Masterson said...

Good point. Reading too much of one genre, even the one you write, narrows your vision.

Masquerade Crew said...

This is a great piece, so great in fact that I would love to syndicate it on our blog. I will link to you, of course.

If you're interested, send me an email. msl_007 {AT} live {DOT} com

Unknown said...

As usual, you nailed it! Fantastic post. Keep it up!

Unknown said...

Mood, I think you're absolutely right. When I start in on my revisions, that's when I typically devour novel after novel in all types of genres. Otherwise, I don't focus much on reading as aggressively as I do while writing the first draft.

Great post!
Anna Soliveres

mooderino said...

@LD-I think so. Might take a little effort, but worth it to broaden your horizons, I feel.

@Masq-thanks. Do with it what you will.

@Angel-cheers. Will continue to keep it up and nail it as much as possible, although may need to take naps in between.

@Anna-first draft is pretty much all about getting words (often crappy words) on page, for me. No time for anything else.

Unknown said...

I like Stephen King's reasoning, "If you don't have the time to read, then you won't have the time to write!"

So true!

Ciara said...

I always get that click when my crit partners or beta readers mention something.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Hi Mood

You've dropped by on my Picture Postings in the thought I would see if you would have an interest...

I put a guest post together for a friend today…liked it so much I want to take it on a tour…meaning I’m fishing for invites.

Would you be willing to host me on your blog?

I put a galley of twenty favorite pictures together [from my famous Sunday Safaris] for my friend’s post…If you are up to me taking several meg of your free Google disk space.

No pressure. If you’d like to wait for JC’s post on the 28th…I’ll send you a link so you can look over the content first.


Regards, Mac

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I read tons and I try to read lots of different stuff, from so-called literary to all genres of fictions. I also like to read new writers and books from small publishers.

mooderino said...

@Diane - I'm with Steve.

@Ciara-and then the rewriting begins...

@Mac - emailed you.

@Susan/Kelley-And you agree with me, right? (crosses fingers)

Jason Runnels said...

Anyone else a fan of mixed martial arts? To be successful you need to be a well rounded athlete and skilled in boxing, wrestling, and many different styles of martial arts, including karate and jiu-jitsu.

James Toney, a world champion boxer, made a huge mistake by trying to be one-dimensional against MMA star Randy Couture.

So, I agree with you, Moody, it's about being well-rounded.

Now for a major generalization, you can always find bad books in the free section of Amazon. Usually I do a critique of these eBooks for my own benefit and not to share. There's usually a reason these books are free, (and not just to get marketing exposure).

But every so often I am yanked into a great story. I learn a lesson here too that just because something is free, not published by the Big 6, etc. doesn't automatically mean it's going to be bad.

nutschell said...

Agreed! WE should always make time to read. I mostly read fantasy and writing books, but whenever I can I throw in some mystery, memoir, nonfiction and whatever other topic catches my fancy. I make time for books everyday. I listen to audiobooks during my commute to and from work. I end up reading about two books a week this way:)

mooderino said...

@Jason-absolutely. And just because a book is published by the Big 6 doesn't mean it's going ot be any good, either.

@nutschell-i think it's really helped my reading that movies and tv shows are so bad. Best literacy initiative ever.

Arlee Bird said...

We learn by example, experience, and rote. Voluminous reading fills our minds with some of all of those methods and we can't help but start having our writing improved as we gain greater understanding of the mechanics and the soul of the art.

A Faraway View
An A to Z Co-host blog

Andrea Mack said...

What a great point about reading books that you don't like as well as books as you like. There is definitely a lot to learn about why you don't like a book, and why it doesn't work for you, as well as the opposite about books that you do like.

mooderino said...

@Arlee-an educated mind tends to have better taste, too.

@Andrea-even if you don't like a book, I think you still gain something on a purely mechanical level of how things are put together. Often, when you aren't distracted be enjoyment, you can see the worikings that much better.

Unknown said...

We read to articulate our own feelings, emotions, preoccupations, etc. But we also read to get outside these feelings emotions, preoccupations, etc.

mooderino said...

@Robert - all good reasons to pick up a book.

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