Writers read; this is non-negotiable. It is how we learn to write. I’ve always been a reader, ever since that magical moment, which I still clearly remember, when my first grade teacher asked us to open our spelling workbooks and write, “I am.” It didn’t take me long to find delight in turning the sounds of my language into written words.
By the time I finished first grade, my teacher complained that I’d read through all the Dick and Jane books, and she needed to find other things for me to read. I was surprised at that, so her comment remained, stuck in my memory bank. I didn’t know I was reading more than others in my class. I was just having fun with reading.
Another childhood memory stayed with me. My father took me to the Richmond Public Library when I was in third grade to find pictures for a report I was doing on transportation. I fell in love with that library and wanted to read all the books there. It grieved my heart when I eventually realized it would be impossible to read all those books in one lifetime.
Here’s a video I made, expressing my love of libraries.
My pre-internet writing skills development included reading
When I was young, there was no internet. Just sayin’ – don’t know if you remember those days. We had pen-pals instead. Throughout my early mothering years I entertained myself by writing to dozens of awesome pen-pals across the USA, and even in far-away England. That’s where I got a lot of my writing practice. Of course, college English classes helped.
Later, while looking for work, I analyzed my skills. I wanted to know what I was good at so I’d know what kinds of jobs I might qualify for. It came down to this… the only thing I was really good at was writing, so I decided to become a writer.
My many years of reading inspired my direction. Would I be a journalist? A novelist? Or what?
As it turned out, I was both a journalist and a novelist. I started a news service for the small town I lived in and wrote a series of young adult novels.
Writers read; it is how we learn to write
To this day I believe that reading is what led me into writing. The love of literature is alive in my heart. The more I read, the more I love writing, whether it is my writing or yours. I admire the human creative imagination and its ability to give birth to new worlds.
Writers read to learn what readers like to read. If we want to write popular books, we need to know what sells and what doesn’t. We need to learn who our readers are so we can write things they’ll love to read.
How being a writer has changed my experience as a reader
We who write fiction are all aware of the many rules of writing. Do THIS if you want to be published. Don’t do THAT if you want any literary agent to consider representing your books. We are all so ruled over that most of our long-loved literary efforts are completely ruled out.
As a writer, I’ve found this to be constraining and insulting. Let us not forget that the Newbery Award winning book, A Wrinkle In Time, started with the most ultra-cliché weather line of all time, “It was a dark and stormy night.” That opening line was originally used by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton for his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, and it has been a source of literary hilarity ever since. It should be noted that Edward Bulwer-Lytton also coined the time-honored phrases, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and “pursuit of the almighty dollar.”
If there had been a literary agent or publisher setting rules for Edward Bulwer-Lytton, or Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, or any number of other great classic authors, their amazing works of literary grace might not have come into being, or they might have been shaped far differently than what we have today. I believe authors must be free to exercise their full creativity without a set of restrictive rules set by editors and agents accustomed to rejecting far more manuscripts than they could possibly agree to publish or represent.
With that in mind, when I read as a writer, I frequently find myself enjoying a great book, whether classic or of more modern origin, then finding gaffes that make me wonder how they got past an editor’s pen. For example, the extremely high number of adverbial dialogue tags in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
When I read fiction as a writer, I take note of masterfully-written sentences. I take note of sentences that are so long I forget what they’re about by the time I get to the end of them. I also take note of characterization, plots that might be predictable, and dialogue that rocks. I record the best examples in case I want to review the book later. And a special pet peeve of mine: I take note when a novel’s narration exceeds its dialogue.
Any novel I read these days will give me clues on what works and what doesn’t. I need to know these things so I won’t make the same mistakes in my novels, or so that I can develop skills for what works.
Writers read a variety of genres. We read what we want to write, but we also read genres with little in common with the genres we’re most likely to write in. We read great novels to see why they’re so great, with a nod to the classics. We also read bad novels, to see why they failed. Why is a novel popular in 1942 now only a footnote in history? These are the kinds of things writers want to know.
Reading is a huge part of what I do as a writer. Those who love to read internalize the skills needed to become a writer. We know things that cannot be explained about sentence structure and cadence: the rhythmic flow of words. We know what kinds of books we love and how to create characters we care about. I therefore challenge all readers to take up their pens and learn to write. Start slow, with writing practice sessions if you must, but have confidence in your ability to write in whatever genre you love most.
This was written for the February 1, 2017 Insecure Writer’s Support Group.