“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading in order to write; a man will turn over half a library in order to make one book.” –Samuel Johnson
As my students can attest, I am riddled with pet peeves when it comes to writing: the use of second person in academic essays, repetition of initial sentence words, repetition of verbs, repetition of pretty much anything (although there are certainly exceptions), cliches, comparing vampires to statues, overuse of adverbs, overly dramatic tags, overuse of names in dialogue, any description of passion that mentions fire or burning, naming a main character Jack . . . the list goes on and on. For creative writers, those mentioned above are the more nit picky, forgivable things that I will grumble to myself about, mark, and move on. However, I have two main pet peeves, not so much with writing but with writers:
- Writers who cannot/will not/do not take criticism.
- Writers who cannot/will not/do not read.
To me, these are almost unforgivable curses. If a writer cannot do these two simple things, they should not write. Or they should not make other people read what they write. Or maybe they should not make me read what they write. I would like to address taking criticism, which is a skill in and of itself, in another post. So I proceed with the second bit of peevish behavior: writers who do not read.
Before I get into the practical and craft building necessity of reading, I will share a story. Several years ago I joined an online writing forum. It wasn’t particularly great, but it allowed a place for writers to brainstorm together and find critique partners. (I’m always a fan of actively working on craft.) One day, a participant referred someone, who I shall call Pedestal, to a book that might help with the piece she was writing. Pedestal replied: “I don’t like to read that much because I feel it corrupts my style.”
This was one of those times I am glad I was behind a computer screen instead of in a face to face environment (my facial features betray everything, an unfortunate impediment that has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion), because “What kind of arrogant, ignorant buffoon are you?” was probably written on every bit of my face.
It’s like those actors who in interviews (cough *Harrison Ford* cough) say that they don’t go to the movies, like they have such great lives that they don’t have to stoop to mass entertainment like the rest of us, even though that’s what they do for a living. Enjoy your ranch, Harrison. Glad we peasants were not held to your high standards and saw Indiana Jones, even the terrible one(s).
I feel the same way about writers who don’t read–how can you be a part of a community if a.) you only give your own work without appreciating others, and b.) you don’t know anything about what’s come before and what’s happening now in that community? It is downright baffling to me.
Back to Pedestal’s comment on style: certainly there is a possibility of stylistic influence, particularly when reading someone with distinct style. I went through a four month period in college when I was reading Bret Easton Ellis like there was going to be book burning at the end of the semester, and there is no doubt whom I was reading when reviewing my writing from that period. Do I still write like Ellis? No. I moved on to another author, kept writing, and continued to develop my own voice. Are those stylistic elements still present in my writing? Some bits, I’m sure. Less than Zero uses modular design in an interesting way that I play with sometimes. But Ellis was certainly not the first to do character point of view shifts from chapter to chapter. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying does the same thing. I don’t believe it to be presumptive to consider that Ellis read Faulkner at some point. Part of progress and creation as an artist, at least in my mind, is understanding what has come before, even if it isn’t your taste and/or genre, and then asking, “What can I do with this?”
My point then is this: writers must read to understand and appreciate good writing, as well as recognize bad writing. They must read to understand the fundamentals of narrative, grammar, and style so that they may then create in a more effective way. Writers must read so that they may begin to review their own work.
What to read? Read things in the genre you write (if you are in fact a genre writer). Read classics, especially if they aren’t in the genre you normally write/read. Read short stories. Read fiction, Read non-fiction. If you still have no idea where to start, look at the Reading List page. Many of those are available for free online or at the library.Or, go back to your favorite book that you haven’t read in awhile. Reread it and jot down what it is you love about it. I’m doing that at the moment with Blind Assassin.
Personal writing aside, I also suggest keeping a Reader’s Journal. There are fancy versions available, but those aren’t necessary. Use a plain journal, blog, or even just a Word document to write a critique every time you finish any book. Write about your thoughts on the book–what worked? What didn’t? How successful were things like style, pacing, plot, characters, dialogue, setting, description? Is there any technique or idea that you might want to explore in your own writing? Are there any quotes or scenes that you really loved or hated? Note those pages numbers for future use.
“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson