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?
Sherry G. says
As a newbie to writing I’ve heard the same advice from other writers, “read, read, read, even outside your genre,” it’s worked for me, but my writing sense, just like a Spidey sense, tells me when the writing of other writers helps or hinders me. Sometimes my writing sense will say, “no way can you write like that, forget it sister,” or it will pipe up and say, “oooh, we like, we like,” then and only then do I know I’m on the right track. I don’t write like the writers my Spidey like sense gets a groove for, but I’m defiantly inspired by them.
Annie Reynolds says
I was once lucky enough to attend a conference where both Terry Pratchett and David Gemmell spoke about writing. I was a Gemmell virgin at that stage but decided to buy a book. I soon discovered the marvelous writing style and totally engrossing story telling ability of the axe man, he had us all enthralled.
One comment Terry made stuck with me, basically he said if you want to write about fantasy read history. There are manny weird and wonderful things to learn and use from history.
I do notice historical events popping up here and there in my fav novels so I guess this is an idea that has been out there for a while.
Arik Durfee says
I guess it's kind of like music. When I go through a long period of only playing the stuff I've written, my music writing becomes more and more homogenous and redundant. But when I branch out and listen to something new, something totally outside of what I normally play or like, I find it helps me branch out in my writing and I come up with riffs and progressions that I wouldn't have thought of otherwise.
I don't know that writers should feel required to be versed in certain classics. But I do think reading a lot (and from a lot of different sources) can make a big difference in your writing. Whatever I read, I try to pay attention to what works and why. I recently read ANGELS AND DEMONS and ended up learning some really important things that I applied to my YA science fiction story (which is absolutely nothing like ANGELS AND DEMONS).
As far as staying away from your genre so it won't influence your voice… I write YA sci-fi fantasy stuff because those are the stories I've always loved to read. I can't imagine staying away from those stories for the sake of my own writing.
Cheryl Gower says
YES!YES! YES! And if not well-read, then have a lot of world experience; people contact/watching; education; TV; culture–you name it. The more interesting or interested you are, the same will be reflected in your writing.
Nobody is going to read this but I thought I'd answer anyway. Personally, I don't read for my writing, I read because it entertains me. That being said…I think writers should be aware of books that are out there.
And when I'm working on a project…well, I don't read fiction at all because I do tend to take on that style. And I don't want that.
I don't think a writer needs to have read every book known to mankind, but it is important to have read quite a few books( not sure about numbers here). It is one of many ways that you are able to study the craft. Many successful writers read. Are they successful because they read? I don't have an answer to that. But I'm sure it affected them in a positive way.
Reading as many books as you can helps you. Does it make you a better writer than those that don't read? Who can say that? Not me.
I read labels on food/recipes/signs/recently I read everything on the computer. Surviving in art always meant staying warm in libraries while my husband sold his paintings on the street. Wherever the window closest to the MOMA was at Darnell/you'd find me reading children's books or young adult fiction(One eye on the street's activities) I'm the mother of six children and when they were coming up I read nonstop to them especially when we were living off the land and had no electricity/evenings were spent reading by candlelight. Sometimes now I think that reading has to do with escapism/but usually I take James Baldwin to bed or any author who I'm inspired to read. This blog has turned me on to a lot of writers.I feel like my brain is racing mostly I can't relate to anyone I'm so busy observing their mannerisms/their style and their use of the language. The writing process for me has a lot to do with the love factor/embracing the community to the point of feeling absent myself. I say read/read/read but don't be afraid to put your chin out there and see the negative glances of others. My best is reading or saying poems to audiences.
Jen C says
I'm not really sure what the definition of "well-read" is. I used to read a lot when I was younger, but not as much these days.
I am doing an English degree, so I read the books they tell us to read (except for that incident I think I already mentioned where I had to drop an entire unit because I couldn't finish Anna Karenina and I couldn't fake my way through it. "Best novel of all time" – my foot.) I still read, just not as much.
I've lost my train of thought as my head is now filled with evil thoughts of Tolstoy, but the point is, how much is enough? How much is not enough? Is it all just subjective?
It's purely subjective. I don't think it does anyone any good to force yourself to read. But I do think if you are going to write genre fiction you need to know what's been done already just to avoid the worst cliches and overdone topics. Doing those will make it harder to catch an agent or editor's eye.
There is a very famous author who I see almost daily, waiting at the same place I'm waiting.
He's always reading a book.
Unfortunately, I can never tell what book it is.
I'm not a very good spy.
I notice the same thing. If I've been all writing/no reading my prose gets flat and redundant. I pick up a couple of books and do something totally outside my comfort zone, like try the style of a famous author, flash fiction, poetry, something I don't normally do. Once in a while a piece turns out well but mostly not. At any rate, wrestling with words and cadence that are foreign to me works wonders when I come back home.
Even though I've always wanted to write there was a long period in which I didn't because I didn't think I was well read enough.
I needed to be fluent in the classics as well as newest shiniest cover at the local book store and to be honest I wasn't. Only now, for myself anyway, I've found that a good story is simply that. And that all the great classics and top sellers began that way.
There's so much 'noise' its hard not to be swayed a little so to help I try to read outside of my genre while I'm writing.
Don't know the answer. I believe if you understand writing, reading and reading more, and learning to read as a writer (see show, not tell) can help you. Your eyes open to new ways to inveigle words. Yes, inveigle — the words live and you must cajole, entice and seduce them, become their friend, learn their tricks.
But I don't read fiction while I'm realizing a novel. I see my novel like I'm reading it from an already finished book. I just transcribe. Reading something else taints my novel with foreign words. The words and the novel don't like that.
If you don't read, you can get lost in the indiscriminate woods of pasteboard characters and stiff plots, seducing yourself, deluding yourself, thinking you're drinking fine wine instead of skunk beer.
Yeah, read a lot. Read the best and the worse. Read your genre classics and read the literary classics and read the old trash and the new trash. Read poetry and prose. Enjoy them as a reader and think about them as a writer.
I risk repeating my comment. I read this post on my iphone, but I don't see it, so here it goes again.
I'm a voracious reader, and I've passed the addiction to my kids. My 8YO is writing a novel, and one day he was stuck in a scene, and decided to read The LAst Olympian. When he finished the book he said, "Mom! I have all these great ideas. I'm not copying; it's my brain that expanded."
I could not have said t better myself. When you read, your brain grows. In my opinion good writer=reader.
Sherry G. says
As a newbie to writing I’ve heard the same advice from other writers, “read, read, read, even outside your genre,” it’s worked for me, but my writing sense, just like a Spidey sense, tells me when the writing of other writers helps or hinders me. Sometimes my writing sense will say, “no way can you write like that, forget it sister,” or it will pipe up and say, “oooh, we like, we like,” then and only then do I know I’m on the right track. I don’t write like the writers my Spidey like sense gets a groove for, but I’m definitely inspired by them.
Donna Hole says
I don't consider myself well read, because I don't read in every genre. Lots of things I'm totally not interested in, and won't read just to say I read it. (I still haven't picked up anything Stephanie Myers, and although The Road is on my to-be-read list, I'm not is a rush to purchase it.)
The only classics I've ever read were because it was required reading for a class of some sort – though most I did enjoy.
But I do pick up a few popular books to peruse once in a while when I'm having problems writing a scene correctly. Can't get a true feel for romance without reading it, and crime novels help with the shady deals when needed.
But graphics? Inspirationals? Poetry? Hmm, don't see any of those in my near (or far) future.
Mechelle Fogelsong says
I teach English. I grade papers for 20+ hours on weekends. The students who write best also read a lot.
Books are one of many sensory inputs upon which a writer can feast, and while it's no doubt valuable to read one or two, I don't believe it's essential.
Donna Hole says
Just my opinion, but yes, I think writers do read differently. I say this because I read differently before I seriously decided to become a writer.
Not that I don't still read for entertainment, but I find myself doing a mini critique of the novel. Especially the big name authors. Sometimes I find myself reading a scene, and thinking: I'd never be able to get away with that; and neither would he if he wasn't already a multi published author.
And if I'm reading a novel I find particularly gruesome – writing wise – I study the mechanics to see what I don't agree with, and find myself researching techniques in writing publications, blogs, on-line resources.
So, yeah, I really believe writers – whether published or not – read differently.
Does a musician listen to any music without plying his craft? Can a master mechanic look at a rebuilt engine without checking for flaws, or comparing his own recent work?
It's the same, I think for writers.
Familiarity with one's field is extremely helpful in any creative field. Check out the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
If 'well read' means ticking off more than 75% of Time's all-time 100 novels list, then I'm not well read. Because not many fantasy books made that list.
I have to disagree with Mira, though. People who don't read published works from their genre-of-interest are the ones screaming "This has never been done before!" Of course, we also see plenty of Twilight spinoffs because authors who claim their book is 'Not Another Twilight' are actually hoping Twilight fans will publish their work, and Twilight fans will buy their work. But, by reading those books, an author can write about a vampire who cannot be exposed to moonlight (now that hasn't been done before!).
A writer is at risk of imitating another author's style only if he intends to do so. Hence the query letter 'Stephen King has nothing on ya. I am NOT another Stephen King.'
But yeah. I do think a writer has to be well read, at least in his field of interest. If not for the pleasure of it, then for the satisfaction of telling himself 'Hey I can so write better than this!'
Christine H says
At the risk of getting jumped on, I'm going to admit that I don't read much any more, although I was a voracious reader in my younger years.
The reason is two-fold, and related to my attempt to actually write a book of my own.
1. If I am reading, I find that the part of my mind that resides in my novel leaves to go live in the other book until I'm done with it. I literally can't write until I finish whatever I'm reading.
2. Reading other books, particularly in my genre, tends to be very depressing. Like Guy Piano on Sesame Street, I then look at my own work and cry "No, no, no! It's horrible! I'll never be able to finish. Never!"
Maya / מיה says
I kind of like the way I've done it. When I was a kid I read a ton of classics– and barely anything written later than the 1930s. I loved to write, but I didn't have very good role models for modern writing style.
Today I read more like Faulkner suggests: a little bit of everything. I'm glad I had a basis in books from outside the modern era… for some reason, I think this has made me better able to appreciate what modern writers are doing. I think I'm more aware of the ways in which they construct their worlds (even though these worlds seem like our own) because I have read so much older fiction.
Plus I got to feel very smug when that "BBC says most people haven't read the books on this list" meme came around. 🙂
Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe says
If you don't test other writer's work, how do you know what you like or dislike?
Maya / מיה says
btw, I will say that I've been finding it helpful to read books similar to my WIP but not the same. I.e., I'm desperately scared of reading too far into a book that deals with the same historical characters– I don't want to convince myself they must be presented one way, and I'm terrified of unintentional plagiarism. On the other hand, reading historical fiction aimed at women (ok, Philippa Gregory) about completely different events has been helped me learn how to evoke a historical era and transform a historical figure into a protagonist. Also, while I don't aspire to write literary fiction, reading writers such as Margaret Atwood always raises my prose to a new level.
Word verification: bristily
Being well read is like having a good mentor. How else would you fashion yourself if not after writers you admire? Those of us who aspire to become the best writers we can be, know what a good writing looks like.
Thanks Nathan for pointing out this question.
I guess it depends on how good you want to be.
My brother wanted to be an actor when he was a kid, but stopped taking drama in high school because he didn't want to have his natural style messed up by exposure to all these other things. It took me about ten years to figure out how dumb that was. Sure, exposing yourself to a lot of different works is going to influence your style. But that's good. You're going to adopt things out of that mass of experience that you believe suit the way you write. Some of them are going to mess your work up. Some of them are going to make your work better. You just have to believe that you can assimilate lessons you learn from reading and synthesize them into a whole that results in better prose, better stories and more effective style. As Newton said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." The more giants you stand on, the further you can see.
I think the wider and more voracious your reading appetites, the better a writer you will be.
…and my brother became an electician.
I think people automatically become well read in the good material in their favorite genres, because they enjoy them, so they seek to read more, until they have read it all and then they wait for some more to appear. I think, somehow, the process has its drive and differentiation all in one place —the associated pleasure.
Elisabeth Black says
A writer should be well-read in the same way that a naturalist should go outside.
Kate H says
What a question! It seems to me so completely obvious that every writer should be well-versed in the classics. If you don't know what genius looks like, how can you aspire to do your very best work? What would you think of an artist who didn't look at art, or a dancer who didn't watch dance, or a musician who didn't listen to music? It's just nonsense.
If you read widely, you'll encounter such a variety of voices that they won't overly influence your own. To my mind, there's nothing wrong with a writer's voice containing faint echoes of the great ones who have gone before.
As for reading in one's own genre, I don't write genre fiction per se, so I'm no expert. But I would suppose you need to read enough to know the conventions, which "rules" you can break and which you can't, what's been done to death and what hasn't been done at all. And if you don't enjoy reading your genre just for fun, then why on earth are you writing in it?
Laura Martone says
Well, I'm WAY late to the party. Yesterday was such a busy day – and I always feel guilty commenting without reading all the comments. But, alas, life does not always run as smoothly as one might hope.
Before the next topic comes up for the day, though, I just want to toss in my opinion. Yes, I do think that authors should be well read. But, like Jo D., I think you should read across many genres – though, I suppose, concentrating on your chosen genre(s) is ideal.
I liken it to filmmakers. How can you be an effective filmmaker if you don't watch other films? It should be part of your education. You can learn a lot about the craft of writing and filmmaking by experiencig the works of others… and then practicing the devices you discover. If you want to be a horror writer, for instance, you should read horror novels, just as a horror filmmaker should be a horror film aficionado.
Besides, how can you expect people to read your books if you don't read theirs?
The real question is what does it mean to be well-read? Who determines that? Should you have read WUTHERING HEIGHTS, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, TWILIGHT – what? I think that's a much harder question to answer.
I'm not quite sure why someone who doesn't read a genre would want to write in it. What would possess you to say, I can't stand reading mysteries, but hey, I'm going to sit down and write one and expect it will be published and will be unique or better than what other people have done? It can't be for the money, since those odds are astronomical, so what could it be?
I used to write Science Fiction, I stopped when I started finding SF boring. That was when I discovered mysteries and finally wrote something that was publishable. I still love mysteries and my goal is to write the best mysteries I can. I measure myself against the best, even if I know I will fail. Why not reach high?
Finding current work by authors who stretch the center ground of a genre never fails to inspire me.
I recently had my first YA novel accepted for publication. I never would have tried it if I hadn't read David Almond. Thank you, David.
It’s been my experience writing fiction that the more I read fiction, the easier writing comes, and when I’m not reading fiction at all, the imaginative well quickly runs dry. When I was much younger and before I found my own style and voice, my writing passed through an imitative stage probably due to so much reading. But I think this is just part of the growth process and it eventually goes away. I suppose there are some good writers out there that don’t read much, but for me reading is how I have learned and continue to learn how to write, and how I gauge how well I am writing. So I would have to cast my vote for a writer needing to be well read. If anyone wants to read more extensive thoughts about this subject you can check out today’s post, Messing About, at my blog. (https://homesteadonearth.blogspot.com/)
Tricia C says
Absolutely, if you don't just mean old dead white guys…
Carol Piasente says
A wonderful book on the subject is "Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write them" by Francine Prose. Here's a quote from the intro: "Long before the idea of a writer's conference was a glimmer in anyone's eye, writers learned by reading the work of the predecessors…" Each chapter gives specific examples on Words, Sentences, Character, Dialogue…You get it.
So, it's not just reading, but knowing what to read for.
One of my mentors, Etheridge Knight used to say that major poets steal/minor poets borrow. His womantor, Gwendolyn Brooks,said that. Also the best way for a beginning writer is to emulate authors that they love. How else. Francy Stoller
I think reading helps one learn the craft of writing, but only if the reader pays attention to how the writing works. In my own case, I have always read for entertainment. When I took pen in hand to be a writer I realized that I didn't understand the craft aspects at all. Now when I read I pay attention besides allowing the text to entertain me.
When I first started writing, I didn't put as much importance on reading as I do now. I've realized over time that the more I read, the better I write. Definitely.
Hope you are doing well, Nathan! That is such great news about your novel.
I think that it's important to read as much as possible and not only in your genre. It opens up your world to new ideas and ways that other writers are expressing themselves. I believe that writing is a learning process and if you think about it, reading is basic to this process. Think about being a child and how learning to read made it possible to understand all sorts of things. Being well-read can only help.
I used to worry about being too widely read within my genre–fantasy, urban fantasy, and science fiction–for fear of "copying" what other people have done.
It occured to me, however, that one of the first impulses I had to write was when I read a book that was good, but didn't quite go to all the places I wanted it to. It skimmed over the character I was most interested in, or only briefly mentioned the diner I thought was really neat…One of the reasons I started to write was to find the stories that no one else was telling.
I think that is the key to being well read, in or out of your genre. Reading gives you what you need to be a writer: understanding of the craft, of what has and hasn't been done, of what is being over done (in urban fantasy, it's sassy female protagonists who hunt creatures that go bump in the night *rolls eyes*), and most importantly, the desire to write, to find the story that hasn't been told yet.
Persnickety Press says
In my opinion, you should know your genre inside and out. The only way to do that is to read everything you can get your hands on. You can only come up with an original idea if you know what is already out there. Who needs another copy-cat paperback?
Also, reading the classics would only be helpful.
"Not wanting to be influenced by others" is a common reason given by aspiring writers who don't want to read. More than one successful writer has pointed out that this is the road to poor writing… thinking you're doing something original and being able to recognize that what you've produced is ordinary, even hackneyed. You have to know what's been done in order to challenge yourself to produce original work, because it's a LOT more than just expressing emotion.
Moreover, someone who reads is passionate about the craft — curious and excited about what's been done excellently, hungry for good teachers, and challenged to rise to the same level.
… that is to say, being UNable to recognize…
It's obvious what was meant, I know, but the mistake irks me and there's no way to correct the original post.
Reading through the comments, occurred to me that it may be different for different genres.
Also – something you said, Nathan – we all have our own paths as writers. So what may work for one, may not work for another.
Not sure why anonymites seem to think that the terms "garbage" or "trash" are meant to offend whatever is they read or write.
Just because it's commercial doesn't mean it's garbage. (unless you're an anonymous troll looking for a fight) Some commercial fiction is really good.
But, there are also plenty trend jumpers, or bottom-feeder writers who write cliche-ridden books starring paper-cutout characters drowning in syrupy prose.
That being said, in the widest sense garbage is relative to the reader. But there still is generally some consensus as to what is good writing and what is bad. (the key word there is generally. as in, I'm not making an absolute statement.)
Whatever it is you write (and love to read) somebody else out there is gonna think it's garbage… so why get your panties in a bundle about it?
So, yes. Read, read, read. Good, garbage, whatever. Just write afterwards.
Dog Bites Back says
I believe that as a writer, you need to be aware not only of the contemporary world you'd like to be a part of but also the world that's come before you – whether it's in analysing style and drawing from more established writers' techniques and methods, or simply in terms of narrative. It's heartening to realise that almost everything we think and write now was done 2,000 years ago. The Greeks had it covered.
What we writers need to understand is that we are not original from the off. We are not always breaking new ground but we can sure as hell do our best to avoid being lost in the literary pile.
I read all the time. I read academic articles, journals, texts and self-help books for work (resources for my clients and I write them as well); I read on the bus, in line at the bank, and in the bathtub to unwind.
I just came back from the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library Big Book Sale where I bought 58 books. Included in that are mysteries, historical fiction, travel writing on Oxford University, "Dangerous Liaisons" (the play), books on acting and directing for the theatre, a 1st ed. of Jane Smiley's "Greenlanders", a couple on writing (natch), an Anthony Trollope I hadn't yet read, and a few contemporary lit fics.
I rarely read anything in the genre I write, but I get a great education out of switching genres and eras and "purpose". When I don't like something, since I've been steadily writing (and rewriting;-), I've become more adept at parsing out why I don't like something. I can tell if it's just being in the mood for something different, or if something is poorly written. And if poorly written, what makes it so. And what might have made it better.
I like being widely read and appreciating all sorts of books for what they are and what they are trying to achieve.
Stephen King said in 'On Writing' that if you can't make time to read, you should forget about writing. Something to that effect. I agree. As far as what you read, well, I guess that's up to you.
the debate still rages over on Authonomy (I started a thread the day before this blog piece, entitled Want to be original, then read a lot). Apparently that is a stupid assertion and to paraphrase some of objections so far: if you are truly talented then you shouldn't need to read, and if you do then you aren't really talented, or something like that… Oh and the reason there are so many non-readers out there(are there?) is because all published writers are just repeating the same old same old because they've read too much.
And finally (there are many more), if you read how to books you'll produce a painting by numbers novel.
Are the nay sayers right? Or is Jerome Sterner? (from whom I initially quoted)
are there any books out that have a negative consequence to a person's writing skills? or are there books that cover this topic?…thanks