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How Many Books Should a Writer Read? Can You Be a Writer if You Don’t Read?

Posted in creativity, discipline, Independent Publishing, Learning to Write, novels, Publishing, Reading, writers, Writing a novel, writing books, and Writing Tips

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Reading and Writing are Two Sides of the Same Coin

How many books should a writer read? The simple answer to this question is, “As many as possible.” I don’t know any successful writers who aren’t voracious readers. To me it’s a no-brainer that in order to write, and to maintain your writing productivity, you need to be feeding your literary imagination with as much nutrition as you can possibly devour.

That means reading. It means reading a heck of a lot. It means reading widely. It means reading for simple pleasure as well as reading to analyse and critique. It means reading out of your comfort zone. It means reading the works of writers you most admire as a source of inspiration and education. And it means reading the works of writers you don’t like, also as a source of inspiration and education!

I write two pages. And then I read and read and read.
– Jose Saramango

When I come across would-be writers who complain they can’t get started, or can’t find a good idea, or have great ideas but can’t find a way to bring them to completion, or never finish anything, or generally aren’t satisfied with the quality of their prose, my first question is always, “What are you reading?”

It’s frighteningly common that the response is, “Oh, I’ve been so busy trying to write… And I have to fit it all around my day job, looking after the kids, etc. I don’t really have time to read much.”

Can you be a writer if you don’t read? To think so is a grave error. The more you read, the better writer you will become. This is practically a law of nature. I honestly don’t see how it would be possible to become a writer if you weren’t a reader first. But if you still need convincing, let’s take a look at the reasons why it’s so important to read if you want to write.

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To be a Writer You Must be a Reader

Look at it this way. I speak fairly fluent Italian. I spend a large part of my year living in Italy. I worked for many years in Italy and I have many Italian friends. But I never really learned how to speak the language and express myself clearly – still less make engaging conversation – simply by studying a textbook.

No doubt grasping some basics that way was a help, but I’d be lying if I said it taught me to speak and understand Italian. It was living and working immersed in the language and culture; engaging daily with the people around me; hearing different accents, voices, styles of speech adapted to different circumstances; it was this exposure to the language, this constant listening, that taught me to speak. Immersing myself in the language is what brought me to the level of competence I now enjoy. Had I only listened and never tried to speak, or had I simply repeated phrases from the phrasebook and never really listened, I very much doubt I’d have gotten anywhere with it at all.

Eastman_Johnson_Reading_Boy_1863Likewise with writing and reading. Reading – reading lots and reading widely – is to immerse yourself in literary culture and language. You’ll learn to write by absorption, in the same way as I learnt Italian. Where else can you hope to learn about narrative structure, dialogue, story arcs, characterization, symbolism, metaphor, and clean prose, except between the covers of a book written by someone who already understands them?

You could study a book of style, a detailed grammar, a dictionary, and a thesaurus for the rest of your life and never learn to write. But if you read thousands of novels in your favorite genres, you’ll have a profound understanding of how all those elements are used and combined to create the reading experience you enjoy.

All successful writers understand this very important fact: good writing should be invisible, as should the writer. Writing is all about the reader. The only purpose of the writing you do is to give the best possible reading experience to your readers. In order to do that, you really need to understand what it means to be a reader. You need to read. So back to our question, how many books should a writer read? You need to read as much as you possibly can, and then some. You probably need to read more  than you write.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
– Stephen King

When you’re learning to write – and really I think all writers, however experienced, are always learning to write – then reading and analyzing, even mimicking, the work of the writers you most admire is a first-class exercise in deepening your understanding of what works and why. I’m not for a moment suggesting you should try and publish work you’ve effectively plagiarized from other writers. But I do firmly believe that as an exercise this kind of thing can help us to enter in to the techniques and processes which create great writing.

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Reading Exposes You to the Best and Worst of Your Craft

I think I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about my first novels, which will forever remain unpublished because they were largely plagiarized from my favorite writers. At the time of writing them this plagiarism was perfectly unconscious and only came to my notice later. But I do think those early, imitative works, were formative in developing my understanding of the craft of fiction.

Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.
– Michael Morcock

It has often been said that there are no new stories. Many academics and others, from ancient times to the present day, have attempted to define the fundamental formula underlying all fiction. Everyone from Aristotle to Christopher Booker have had a stab at this. The numbers vary – some say there are five basic plots, others three or seven; Joseph Campbell, in his extraordinary work “The Masks of God,” reduces global storytelling to a single plot which he nominates the monomyth – but the principle remains true.

How many books should a writer read?

Reading Develops Empathy: an Essential Skill of the Writer

Rich and profound and varied as it is, human experience is still limited and life is still short. Each new generation experiences the old stories embedded in a human lifespan as if for the first time. That’s another good reason to read. You will broaden, deepen and nuance your perspectives of the human experience, pressing your imagination into service in an act of empathy and not merely self-reflection.

This ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes” as the saying goes, to listen and to empathize with “the other” is the first call required of any effective communication. If you read a lot you will learn to write to the heart of your reader and not simply fill her ears with the noise of your own voice.

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So, How Many Books Should a Writer Read?

Good writing breeds good writing if it is read. As you read, your thoughts and feelings, your reflections and questions, may all serve you well as sources of inspiration for your own writing. In its most populist form this effect is seen in the proliferation of “fan fiction.” For many younger writers, and older ones too, writing fan fiction is an excellent way of learning to write. At the other end of the scale there are innumerable literary writers who have produced works in homage to their own literary heroes.

How many books should a writer read? If you’re not a reader, if reading isn’t as vital to you as eating and breathing, then I would question whether or not you could become a writer. In such a case I would also suggest that you question your own motives for wanting to write. The writing life for most of us is a hard one, a struggle, a painful labor of love. If you don’t love to read it’s unlikely you’ll love to write. And you must love it or you’ll never sustain the discipline and the energy required to finish your novels, still less to make a living at it.
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4 Comments

  1. Great post! Learning a language is a good analogy. My English improved vastly after moving to the UK, and the majority of what I learnt I’ve never found in any textbook.

    I like your point about reading and the human experience. I don’t know about others, but my life, as much as I enjoy it, does not encompass the entire spectrum of human experience. Reading to me is a shortcut to these ideas, a way to live other lives than my own, and I think I benefit from it both as a writer and as a person. If I had to choose between reading and writing, I’d choose the former, precisely for that reason.

    June 15, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Thanks M.H.,

      I agree with everything you say about the values of reading. Through reading I am able to access ideas, emotions, experiences, that I would never have arrived at limited to my immediate temporal experience. When you open a book and begin to read, you are looking inside someone else’s mind and heart, exploring another’s imagination and perspectives. It’s a very intimate and humbling privilege. Reading is probably the closest we’ll ever get to mind-reading or telepathy.

      “If I had to choose between reading and writing…” I agree with that, too – but lordy, I hope such a decision never has to be made!

      June 17, 2016
      |Reply
  2. Excellent and helpful post; reading books are the main tools of a writer; as you said, it’s a great way to come up with ideas and provide nourishment for your brain. Reading also gives you a chance to learn from the masters; essentially, your looking into these author’s brains when you read their work. I know that some people think that art and individual should be separated, but I’ve heard of some authors drawing on their own experiences to base to give their story a sense of realism. However, it’s just as well reading from good or bad writer’s because you know what techniques to avoid and what works.

    I’ve been reading a lot of different genres and going out of my comfort zone, but I’m glad I have, because you realise that no work is original. I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 recently and I was unimpressed, but I got told that it was a rip-off of Ayn Rand’s Anthem and I preferred it – the writing was concise and felt less laboured.

    September 17, 2016
    |Reply
    • Austin Hackney
      Austin Hackney

      Hi Farrah,

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m delighted you found this post helpful to you.

      Absolutely, reading is essential for any writer. You do well to read outside your comfort zone as it’s easier to discover the common core of all stories and learn to recognize the underlying structures which make stories either work or fail.

      There are no original stories at this stage – but there are infinitely new ways of telling them.

      September 18, 2016
      |Reply

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