Why Writers Need To Be Readers

Written by Emily Harstone | August 3, 2016

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

-Stephen King, On Writing

When I was a child I read one book every day. And by a book, I mean a one hundred to two hundred page novel. Usually it was part of a series. Often it was nothing that would ever win awards. I read a lot of Nancy Drew, of The Boxcar Children, or Enid Blyton. I just needed to read.

Out of that love of reading, eventually a love of writing developed. But it took a long time. I started reading a book a day in second grade. I started writing seriously at 14, 7 years later.

As a professor of creative writing I meet people regularly who want to be writers.  They tell me that they don’t read because it will negatively impact their own personal style of writing. They say they can only be original if they are not influenced by other people’s writing.

A friend of mine who has been a professor of creative writing for over twenty years recently told me that in the last five years this view has become even more popular and commonplace. When students tell her this she then asks who is going to read their book then? Who is going to buy it? This often results in the student looking down and mumbling the word readers at the floor, as if readers are something that should be completely separate from writers.

The main issue with claiming that you are not going read because your personal writing style might become tainted or overly influenced by reading others writing styles is the fact that even if you never read another book, or form, or even an email for the rest of your life you would still be influenced by other people’s writing.

When you watch a TV show it is written by someone. When you listen to a song it is written by someone. When you see a move, it is written by someone. So these written things are already influencing you. There is no way to avoid being influenced by others.

The creative writing professor that I mentioned earlier brings this up as a primary issue now in her classes. Half of the work people turned in one semester were rip offs or odes to Game of Thrones. Not the book series, A Song of Fire and Ice, but the television show on HBO. These students had never read the book. They were not fantasy genre readers. They just liked the show and wanted to write more like it, completely unaware of most of the writers that had gone before them. She was not impressed by the quality of the work. There was very little description. The action was confusing.

No matter what one does, one is going to influenced by outside sources. But the quality of ones writing will be much better if they are influenced by the same medium that they are producing.

Besides, it really is impossible to avoid reading. If someone is only reading error riddled emails, and casually written Facebook posts, and Buzzfeed articles, but not actually reading well edited novels and thoroughly researched non-fiction books, their writing will not be influenced for the better.

The more you reads books the more you can understand the elements that go into them, and the better your craft can become.

To be a good writer I believe that one has to read a lot of books. Fifty a year would be a good place to start, but twenty five would work. I also think that the kind of books one reads should vary. Even though I primarily write fiction, I read a lot of non-fiction and have learned a lot from books like Gang Leader for a Day, or The Power of Habit.

I have read entire books that I did not like, that have still helped me improve as a writer. For example the book Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is not my favorite novel, far from it. But the way she described domestic violence in just one sentence has deeply effected the way I write about trauma of any kind.

Would anyone compare my style to Atkinson’s? No, of course not. But I needed to read her to develop my writer’s toolbox. Just like I needed to read Stephen King’s On Writing to know what a writer’s toolbox was, in the first place.