How to Read, for Writers

During my holiday hiatus from blogging, I was asked an oh-so-familiar question: How do I become a writer? The real answer is that, like in most fields where results are subjective, there isn’t one single answer. There are some commonalities; usually, successful authors have loved to read from a young age, have spent many hours perfecting their craft, have some affinity for words beyond just the skills gained in technical practice, have spent time researching the publishing industry, and have experienced rejection–and then tried, again and again, until everything worked out. We could quibble about how to define “author” or the meaning of success, but I don’t really want to talk about those things right now. Instead, I want to talk about reading.

I’m going to be long-winded.

I think that reading is an underappreciated and under-advertised aspect of learning to be a writer. In fact, I’d argue that to be a good writer, one first needs to be a good reader. If I were to give a diagnosis to any number of questions (Why won’t anybody respond to my query? Why aren’t more people buying my e-book? How do I get better at dialogue?), it would often have to be “Take two books and call me in the morning.”

Like any other piece of writing advice, I encourage you to take this with a grain of salt. You may very well be in a place where what you need is a crash course in punctuation, or you may need specific help with paring down your synopsis. But if you’re just starting along your path to becoming a published author, or if you feel like you’re stuck somewhere along the trail, you might try the book diet I’ll outline below.

To begin, set a reading goal. I like multiples of calendar divisions. If you read very little, perhaps 24 books–or two a month–is a reasonable goal for the next year. But why not shoot for 52 books? Or 104? (Last year, I read more than 300, and it’s not uncommon for an author to read 150 or more in a year, just to keep up with what’s being published in a genre!) Tip: You can stop if you don’t like a book. Also, if you’re worried about time, remember that this is an important part of your self-education, and find time to read a few chapters every day–in line, on your cell phone, via a DailyLit e-mail, in the bathroom. It adds up.

This goal doesn’t have to break your budget; you probably have access to a library where they’ll let you read books for free, and if you can’t physically visit your library, or if you live in a rural area, you might be able to have library books mailed to your home. Don’t hesitate to pick the brain of your favorite librarian if you need a specific format or if you want recommendations. While some of the reason to read, and read a lot, is so that you’ll know what’s being bought and sold on the bookshelves, you won’t be out of the game if you have to wait for the most current releases to come available at your library–and if your library is, like so many, short on collection development funds, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find gems in older books.

I always think that it behooves aspiring authors to buy books and participate in the publishing ecosystem, especially when those purchases are made at independent bookstores. But if you’re strapped for funds, try used books, library or association fundraising stores, and sale coupons–and don’t forget to consider book swaps!

Now that you’re reading, what should you read?

50% of Your Reading Time: The Books You Want to Write

Spend half of your time reading in the genre(s) in which you want to be published. Read new books, old books, books by authors from your country and others, from a variety of publishers and imprints, and consider seeing out as many aspects of the human experience as you can. Read both for pleasure and for education. Enjoy the books you’re reading! If you’re not enjoying them, stop reading. Ask yourself what’s wrong. Does it turn out that you like a couple of cowboy books, but now you’re starting to realize that what you really loved about those books was the historical setting, and not so much the horses? Have you picked up a string of books that have humdrum opening chapters? Are you irritated by a particular stock setting or common stereotype?

If you are enjoying some books, again, ask yourself why. Do you really like the way the author shaped a character or plot? Was the voice unique and memorable?  Why? You might even consider choosing a book or two a year to analyze. If you enjoy a book’s pacing, why not outline the events and reveals? And, importantly, I think it’s a very good idea to look at well-written sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The best will reinforce the gut instinct grammar you know and encourage you to construct well-proportioned work. Blogging about books you like, and why, can offer you the opportunity to organize your writing aspirations and connect with others for lively discussion.

I really don’t think you’ll accidentally plagiarize or be unduly influenced by a particular author’s writing style–at least, you won’t if you’re reading widely. You might even absorb some good habits. Finally, I think that reading in “your” genre helps you to recognize tired storylines, to appreciate novelty, and to have a solid sense of what’s good enough to get you a contract.

25 % of Your Reading Time: On Writing

So you want to be a writer. Great! Handily, a lot of people like to write about writing. This is where you read all of the books on art and craft–Writing Down the Bones, On Writing Well, Bird by Bird–and where you read industry news, like Publishers Marketplace, Shelf Awareness, Publisher’s Weekly, and It’s where you check out the forums at the Verla Kay Blue Boards and Absolute Write. It’s where you read agent and editor blogs, websites, and Twitter. It’s where you skim the dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style and other style guides (be sure to get Strunk AND White–trust me on this).

We’re social animals, and it’s easy to get mired down in keeping up with everything and everyone, especially everyones who are living your dream. It’s easy to spend hours on reading about philosophy and not putting in the writing time. So do a self-check now and then to make sure that you’re not spending too much time here and putting off your goals–but do put in enough time that you are getting the support, education, and inspiration you need.

 25 % of Your Reading Time: Everything Else

Do you love lofty literature? Pick up a thriller. Like YA? Pick up some picture books. Read a couple of bestsellers, a book of poems, and the cereal box. Read some periodicals: Smithsonian, National Geographic, TIME, a national and local newspaper, US Weekly, People. Read a small-town newsletter and a friend’s travel blog. Heck, watch Jeopardy for a dozen new ideas that you might be able to add into your book.

Basically: Be aware of the world. Be aware of more than one world. Be aware of worlds that aren’t yours–in genre, in culture, in time and space.


And you’ll be well on your way.

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