In the comments section of yesterday’s post, Mira raised an interesting question: do you really need to be well-read to be a good writer?
William Faulkner also weighed in with a comment (okay, it was John Ochwat reprinting a William Faulkner quote): “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”
I’m guessing that most people would agree that one should be at least somewhat to very well-read if you’re going to write.
But how well-read do you need to be? And especially: how well-read in your particular genre do you need to be? Should you be familiar with everything or should you stay away to avoid influences to your writerly voice?
And what’s well-read anyway?
David R. Slayton says
I was say yes, absolutely. And I would add that you not only should be well read, but a literary omnivore. Read outside your genre, read the classics, read what's bestselling right now and critical. Stephen King mentioned in On Writing that he reads 50 or so books a year (including audiobooks).
I think J.J. and King are right: I can learn a lot from reading a bad book. I think the only downside to reading so much is the risk of not enjoying it anymore. I've gotten to the point where I critique everything and immediately break it down. A lot of the joy has gone out of reading for me lately.
To Nathan or anyone else with a profound insight:
First, I certainly agree with being well-read. I have researched quite a bit on my subject matter. Second, however, where nonfiction is concerned (specifically in the case a Chrisian "refernce" book I'm working on) — since, per agent submission guidelines, one must have established credibilty or previously published works to be taken seriously, how then can a "ametuer" theologian (otherwise perhaps unflateringly known a pew warmer) hope to be taken seriously with a (Christian) nonfiction book proposal – even though it is a unique work? (No, I have not been able to find anything exaclty like what I'm working on – layout or angle.) The only books I see out there are compiled by professional teahcing theologians, pastors of mega-churches, or those with masters in divinity or PHDs in religious studies, etc.
Also, from this stance, the only "platform" I could hope to ackowledge is the Christian "body" as a whole.
Would it suffice to instead point out the fact that such a lack of "credentials" is a point in itself, and use it as a kind of hook – say, becuase it is written from a laymans point of view? i.e. the work is being offered to the layman – from a layman – since most "scholarly" works are often SO scholarly that they're difficult to understand – unless you're a scholar; and often are based on the authors' own presuppositions and interpretations anyway!?
I think that if you dont need to be well read to be a good writer. A good writer writes about what they feel or what they have to do on the subject. What matters is if they stay on topic. Not if they can quote Mark Twain perfectly.
You dont need to be well read to be a good writer. What matters comes from inside of what your point of view is. Not if you can quote Mark Twain perfectly.
I think to write you need to be able to do two things:
– come up with good ideas
– structure a story well
I'd suggest that being well-read helps rather more for the second skill than for the first.
I am not well read at all. But I am a finalist in the first paragraph challenge. Shame on me- I am setting a bad example. But hey- that has to be a legitimate answer or else it was not a true question. 🙂
Dani G. says
Congrats! Good for you! Thanks for sharing your comment!
Here is a little thought experiment for you all.
Imagine this situation. There are two books sitting on a table. They are the only two books left in the world and you have not read either of them.
On top of those books lays a little piece of paper with a short synopsis of the writing and a brief biography of the writers.
Book 1. This is the journal of a 12 year old American girl who was the only survivor of an aeroplane crash on a remote Indonesian Island. This is the story of how she made her way back home relying solely on the kindness of strangers.
(We can just assume that the girl is not well-read)
Book 2. 50 year old, well read English professor, writes beautifully about his love of garden gnomes and how he came to collect 2000 of them.
You can only choose one to read. Which would you pick-up?
It's like all art. Look at Punk music. Two chords, screamed, out of tune lyrics over simple drum patterns. It enraged the musical purists but because the punks actually had something to say, they found their place in the musical history books and also exposed the purists for what they were… Snobs!
I'm obviously very much on my own with this more than justified opinion, but hey, I stand out. Is that not what makes someone a good writer anyway?
I would indeed pick the 12 year old American girl who was the only survivor of an airplane crash over the 50 year old scholar, but I've never met a 12 year old with that kind of experience. They are a little on the rare side. Would I read the average 12 year old's novel? No, I wouldn't. I also wouldn't tend to read the 50 year old professor either. I don't examine how much experience an author has when I pick up their book to read. I look at what the book purports to be about, the story it has to tell. Maybe there are people who can right outstanding books without ever having read one in their life, but they are truly special people and there aren't enough of them in the world to write enough books for those of us who read a lot. I LIKE reading. I can't imagine NOT reading. And I write. Which I also can't imagine not doing. It's all an innate part of who and what I am, whatever that means at the end of the day.
I don't think you're on your own at all.
Plenty of people, including me, said that being well read helps, but never suggested that it is absolutely necessary.
Read. Read everything. Devour everything in your genre and beyond. It's the best way to learn how stories are effectively told.
Mary L. Tabor says
The best writing advice I ever got was from reading Faulkner: “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” William Faulkner, Light in August, p. 119.
What a great blog.
Miss Ambition says
It's, no doubt, important to be well-read. You may find your voice being influenced by what it is you have read, especially as a new writer, but I find that this can be corrected during the editing process. The single book that most affected me stylistically was James Joyce's "Ulysses." After reading it, I unwittingly drifted into stream of consciousness mode and the use of made-up interjections (i.e. "tooraloo"). It didn't make sense late into a novel that had not employed these tactics before, but since I've found I enjoy this style, I'm incorporating it into my new work-in-progress. There should never be a reason to stop reading!
I think it helps to be well read. Especially in the genre you want to write — a) why would you want to write a genre you had no interest in reading and b) how else will you avoid the cliches and tired story lines that all genres have if you don't read it?
I've been puzzled in the past when occasionally someone will say they almost never read, yet they are convinced they can write. How can you possibly know what good writing is if you don't read a lot and why would anyone write without a deep, abiding love of it? It's not like you're actually going to make a lot of money doing it. Writing is not a career one chooses because they think they are going to do well financially, unless you write non-fiction. But fiction? Hardly anyone makes a living at it. To me, it has to be a labor of love.
I think the people who can't seem to fathom writing without reading are simply too biased to tackle the question. They like reading, so they are incapable of relating to those who do not generally read, but love to write.
There's no doubt that reading helps tone your craft, but it isn't an endeavor that is necessary to be able to write successfully.
We don't rely only on books to tell stories any longer. We have movies and television to benefit from. This could potentially act as a substitute for book reading.
It's also important that we don't assume that just because someone doesn't read now, that they haven't read in the past. It might be that they've read a variety of literature in the past, perhaps as teens, but now would prefer to spend time writing books and viewing movies and TV. Or it couple be that they like to write fiction, but spend most of their reading time with news articles.
It's all really subjective.
I find it questionable that many here almost seem offended by the notion that some writers don't spend much time reading. Some have gone as far to call these people narcissists. They claim they're only interested in fame.
Couldn't it be as simple as the thought that these people enjoying the art of writing, but not the task of reading?
Reverse the situation: Would you expect someone that reads fiction to write fiction? Of course not, they might enjoy reading, they might not enjoy writing. The activities are very different. One is creative, the other is entertainment.
Dani G. says
Thank you for sharing your comment, you put out some interesting points. I am not well read, but I have read a few books which I was curious to read –or listen to (thanks to audio books in the public domain) who were written in the 1800s by non professional writers, for example a slave from the USA who moved to England and studied and wrote a book about his experience or a vagabond or worker –who simply wrote a book about their life experience or their thoughts, etc. I am sure they did not have time to read books written by accomplished authors of the time.
So by being able to read those books it started to make me think and question– is it really necessary to be well read in order to write?
Although I enjoy reading –I just simply do not have time for it.
So thank you again for sharing your comment.
I made it through about 150 comments before my impetus to write and to express overcame me. Are 150 comments enough to make me well-read?
Reading can help to refine one's understanding of the structural underlays of fiction, certainly. But I don't think that reading can ever supplant an innate understanding of storytelling, nor can it give authors something to say which they do not already have.
In other words, if I am devoid of a passion to express something strongly or beautifully, then there is nothing external that can give me that. Imitating other authors and breaking down their structures can inform the skeleton that supports the story you want to write, but absorption, osmosis and methodical deconstruction of someone else's work can never replace the embers of your soul that you dare commit to page.
What I see here in the comments is a kind of autopilot, slavish obedience to preestablished literary traditions and conventions that worked favorably for other writers. I think those conventions are good for reference purposes, but they should never become a ball and chain that limits creative expression in all its possible avenues, including the skeletal, mechanical ones that frame the story.
Furthermore, in the 21st century, a wellspring of on-demand fiction exists at our fingertips. There's as much to be learned from the genius screen-writing of X-Files or Lost, in 42-minute chunks, as there is from a thousand page novel. To argue this belies a kind of technological or generational snobbery.
Dani G. says
I found this blog by googling the topic at hand, and I´ve read “almost all” of the comments, until I got a bit bored with reading the same thing because I don´t agree much with the majority. Then I decided to sign up and scroll down to write a comment which would be way different and to see if I´d get some responses — but instead came upon your comment.
THANK YOU!!! I COULDN´T HAVE SAID IT BETTER MYSELF !!
I totally agree with you! I felt so relieved to read what you had to say, because it let me know that I am not wrong. I am not well read and it is due to family hardships and having to help my family move forward
financially… which meant that I had to start working at a young age and there wasn´t –and there still isn´t a lot of time for me to read —even if I´d love to do so.
But when I was in primary, secondary and even the university –whenever I had the opportunity to write to pass an exam or had to write an essay, my teachers always made it a point to pull me over and ask to speak to my for a moment, and they´d always tell me that I did a fine job at writing, and that I should pursue it in the future.
So what I want to say Anonymous, is that I have been afraid for many years that I would never become a decent writer if I was not well read, and your comment has lightened my heart and I took a deep breath after reading it, and it made me feel so happy to read a fresh, different and realistic comment that has GREATLY inspired me to go on and start writing what I have inside of me for a long time now. Things that just pour out of me like water, so I thank you once more for being honest and sharing your thoughts on this topic! Your words have served inspirational to me. Definitly a breath of fresh air indeed — a gust of wind to wake one up!
Thank you and best wishes, Dani G.