Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Reading as a Writer

by Annette Lyon

You've heard it many times before, but that doesn't make it any less true:

Good writers read.

But here's the additional bit that not everyone tells you:

Good writers read LIKE writers.

That means reading while wearing the writer hat in addition to reading for pure enjoyment. (But face it; once you start writing seriously, it's hard to read anything without that hat on.)

I know that after I read certain writers, the dialogue in my current project suddenly becomes snappier, more alive.

If I spend a little time with another writer, my descriptions get more vivid.

Reading yet another might provide a eureka moment where I figure out a plot problem.

And then there's one more writer who I'll read, getting immersed in his strong verbs and his amazing ways of showing a rainbow of emotions and gestures.

Of course, every year I try new writers, and in those cases I let myself enjoy a new voice. I watch how he or she structures scenes and pay close attention to how they open the book on the very first page, begin (and end) every chapter.

And on occasion, I'll open up a really bad book . . . and learn by painful example what not to do.

Writers can learn something about the writing craft by reading (and paying attention to) almost any book, whether that lesson is on pacing, voice, plotting, characterization, or a dozen other things.

Make a goal to never be without at least one book underway at all times. (I have more than I want to admit to going at once. I'm not sure if that's a good thing: the book I'm listening to on my iPod, the one I read to the kids at night, the one my husband and I read together, the one in the car, the one for research. And that's not counting the couple of novels on my desk . . .)

Read. A lot. Consider it the crux of your continuing education.

Because it is.


Curtis said...

Great post, Annette. Reading is such a huge part of my life. It drives my passion for writing, it refuels my creative engine, and it always helps to see well-crafted sentences and the power of a well-chosen word in good writing to inspire me.

Like you, I always have two or three books that I'm reading at a time, but when I'm in the middle of writing a novel, I usually don't read anything cover to cover. I'll pick up a number of books that I think are particularly good (Maclean's A River Runs Through It, Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, anything from Mark Twain, etc) and read in snippets before I go to sleep, or before I start to write just to remind me that good writing lay in thrift, then I'll get to work.

I'm sure everyone has a method that works for them, but you're absolutely correct. You have to read to write. :)

Perry P. Perkins said...


Couldn't agree more!

I have several books of various genres that I pick up when I start feeling a project is getting rusty. It's amazing how often just dipping a toe back into the stuff you love will make you go, "Oh, yeah! THAT'S how it's done..."

The only caveat is that it's really hard, as a writer, to read anything but the very best work out there, otherwise I spend more time doing "free" copy-editing than I do enjoying the story, lol.

Maybe this isn't such a bad thing after all...

Thanks again for a great post!


Melanie J said...

One of my favorite parts of being a writer is the write-offs I get to take for the books I buy. Not a bad gig.

And I totally agree about the importance of reading. When I find my writing starting to get a little stale, it really helps to revisit someone who's writing I admire, to kind of get back in the game.

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

This is a great post. I have noticed the writers hat I now wear, especially when I'm reading for enjoyment.

I still get immersed in the story, but I notice the little things like you mentioned in the post.

It has helped me immensely. Questions I've had have been answered just by reading someone else's work.

Thanks for the good advice.

Danette said...

SO many books to write, so many books to read, and not enough time. It's funny, when I was little girl I use to think of the endless things I could do with magic. The list was overwhelming. I would wish this--and then this. It would be a fix all. But the older I became I realized how foolish it was; why wish for such things they will not happen! I then learned to put off the childish dream of having magic fix my problems. Then I became a mother. I have now reverted back to my wishful thinking--if only I had magic the things I could do!

Heather B. Moore said...

Perfect. When I read an interview on JK Rowling who said she reads all the time, even when blow-drying her hair, I knew that I was on the right path :)

When I go to the library I RARELY pick up a book unless I've heard of the author. So word of mouth is paramount when choosing a book.

Kimberly said...

I've found the same thing. Conversely, reading the wrong book at a certain moment in my own book's development can be devastating. Readying A Thousand Splendid Suns while trying to write a teen fantasy novel?

Not so good!