I see this question pop up in various forms, on the writers’ forums and pages I follow. The essential question is “Do writers need to read?” The overwhelming response is always yes.
I am intrigued by the small but vociferous minority that says “no”. From the perplexing (I hate reading and I never read) to the astonishing (reading has nothing I need), the concepts are appalling to this lifelong reader.
The first thing I had to grapple with was how much of this was my own pro-reading bias. I have read as long as I can remember. The story cliché of the kid who would rather read than go outside and play is a replay of my own life. My mother once told me to get my nose out of that book and go outside. I took my book with me and read under a tree. Incorrigible then, incorrigible now. Given that I maintain that the argument “I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad” is logically faulty, I knew that I had to push for a better reason to push back.
So why should writers read? One of the more common responses is that we read for inspiration. I’m not a fan of this justification at all. Reading great authors often serves as a dis-inspiration as I wonder if I’ll ever be that good. Bad authors may increase the desire to put better writing out there, but there must be a better way than inflicting bad writing on yourself.
If it is to get ideas for stories, I’d suggest you have deeper writing issues to confront. A lack of story ideas speaks to, at best, a fettered imagination and, at worst, a lack of one.
So, I reject reading for inspiration. It may be viable for some writers, but I don’t believe it is the most important function for reading in a writer’s routine.
Before I jump into my primary thesis, I want to note something boldly. I read for enjoyment. It is one of the great joys of my life. I changed my approach to blogging about books because my previous method had made reading a chore. I sacrificed the system for the joy. I also understand that not everyone finds that same enjoyment. I believe that what follows provides a rationale for all writers to read.
Writers should read so that we can learn and grow our artistic and technical skills. How is a story woven together, how are words used to create atmosphere and emotion? What is the structural difference between a romance, a thriller, or an epic? When you read a favorite author, what is it that “works” for you as a reader?
I come across writers that claim they don’t need any of this. It makes me shake my head in wonder and pity. Wonder at the astonishing ego displayed in believing that at any point in life, someone can think that they have learned everything they need to know. Pity because these writers consign themselves to re-inventing the wheel, the axle, the wagon, everything. One writer noted great poets that went off into the wild and wrote words we remember today. The style he chose to spotlight is a highly precise form that the writers in question would have learned through long exposure – by reading or listening.
Writers should read so that we are exposed to different styles of storytelling, to different techniques, to new words (!) and ideas. Without that infusion of fresh examples, the writer is trapped within the confines of their own experience, education, and imagination. While I will grant that genius could carry a writer beyond the need for that freshening source, few of us are geniuses.
Writers should read for the simplest of reasons. Through reading, you will become a better writer.