Not reading (Mistake #25)

If one more new writer tells me he has twenty hours a week to spare to write but “I don’t have the time to read!” I may ask to be shut away somewhere dark for a bit to wail until rescued. Any naughty middle-aged ladies out there want to stroke me, pick me up – and then drop me in a bin?

You’re reading this right now, so I suspect you don’t need to be reminded, but you really must read. Reading broadens your mind, feeds your intellect, stimulates your creativity. It makes you more interesting – as a person, as a writer. It’s soothing and satisfying. It fills you with questions and wonder and ideas and inspiration – lifeblood to a writer. Obviously, it boosts vocabulary and teaches you grammar and punctuation, but also it introduces you to clever sentence constructions and journalistic tricks and literary gymnastics you may not previously have conceived of. It shows you how it’s all done.

The excuses:

1/ I don’t have the time
But you do to write? If you have twenty hours to write you can give half of them over to reading. Only two hours to write? One hour writing and one hour reading. Yeah, I do mean it. (At least when you’re starting out.) So does Stephen King: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

2/ There’s nothing I like to read
I’m firmly of the belief that if you hold the view that there’s nothing out there you like to read, then it’s because you haven’t found it and not because it doesn’t exist. Spend more time in the newsagent, the library, the bookshop, even on the internet. What do you want to write about? In what do you wish to specialise? You have to read about subjects which interest you, to inform yourself and keep updated. You must interest yourself in stuff. If you can’t or won’t, then you’re in so much trouble I’m not sure anyone can help you.

3/ I want to write, not read
But reading is a part of writing; they complement one another. We learn this at school.

Look: you have to read what you’ve written, right? Well, reading and appraising the work of others will help you cast a wiser critical eye over your own output – essential in developing as a writer. A writer not wanting to read is like a chef not wanting to eat out, or a musician avoiding gigs, or a footballer turning his nose up at the match. Dare I say it’s a bit arrogant, too? What makes you so special that you only want to write and expect to be read and yet not read the work of others?

4/ It’ll ruin my style! I want to retain my own voice!
You know, the more I think of the issue of a writer’s ‘style’ the less I think it matters. Here, the usual concern is that reading other writers and thereby exposing oneself to their styles may dilute one’s own literary signature or compromise its destined development.

First, it’s rare to have a style distinctive enough to make you recognisable in print. I’m not saying that you’re not one of those individuals or that you lack the talent to nurture such an original voice, just that it’s not important to get published or make a living. There is no shame in reading like the next perfectly competent but otherwise unremarkable writer. None at all. I’m sure I sound like dozens of other health hacks out there. I’m fine with that; I make a living. Being able to adapt your writing and willing to work according to your client’s needs are more important skills to develop. Far more important.

Second: what is style anyway? What is this voice you’re so keen to protect? Surely it’s merely an assembly of elements you’ve been picking up from others since childhood? The words you learned from parents, teachers and peers, the phrases and turns of expression you’ve absorbed from the telly and your friends and work colleagues and – yes – the books and journals you’ve read? All exposures to words and their arrangements throughout life have the potential to leave their subtle marks on your writing. It’s unavoidable and inevitable. Each is filtered uniquely and mostly subconsciously by you: some is discarded, some taken on board, perhaps slightly tweaked. Nobody writes precisely like you, and nobody ever will – not even you in a few years’ time, because this organic process progresses daily, for life. Your style, then, has developed from a unique mix of the styles and voices of thousands of others – among them writers. Why be alarmed of them now?

In many ways, all this is by the by. The key is this: your style is unlikely to be what anyone is looking at or for when they read you. They will be looking for facts, information and entertainment. That’s it in a nutshell.

So: make time for reading. Read everything, not only the obvious stuff like locals and nationals, glossies and niche magazines, and books. Read the backs of boxes of cereal, read road signs, read ‘lost dog’ notices sticky-taped to lampposts. Read the classifieds, and the notices in newsagent windows. Read the terms and conditions and read all the rest of the smallprint. Read recipes and read lists of ingredients. Read catalogues and phone directories and dictionaries. Read quirky chat forums. Read subtitles and Ceefax. Read the junk mail. Read Twitter streams.

There are ideas lurking there, in each of these, just waiting to be discovered, teased out and developed.

Comments 16

  • I couldn't agree more – it's not possible to be a good writer without being a voracious reader. Ask any successful writer and they'll tell you they read a lot and have always read a lot, since childhood.
    Another excuse I've heard for not reading, is that the writer is scared she'll inadvertently plagiarise the books she reads, while writing her own. My answer to that one is, if it really worries you try reading something outside of your own genre while you write your book (eg a worried chicklit author could read thrillers or biography or fantasy or… the choice is endless)

  • I don't have time to read … everything in my 'to read' pile! I wish I could read more than four books at the same time. And then there's the magazines … that's another huge pile too.

  • Yes! The fear of 'subconscious copying'. It's probably understandable, but I think the solution is to read more and more and more, so that the potency of any one book or plot in your head is diluted by hundreds of others. Read only one book, and it'll be too dominant.

    About thirty books, in my case, S!

  • Personally I'm glad reading is such an important part of writing. When I'm not feeling up to doing the writing itself for whatever reason, I can still be doing something productive. You need to read for research, too. So I can be reading around a topic I know I want to write about, even if it hasn't made it on to the page yet.

    I have such a large 'current book' pile it's become something of a joke.

  • Seems to be a recurring problem. Do all writers have a backlog of to-read books?

  • I couldn't agree more. It's important to learn from others and to see what everyone else is doing – can you imagine a director who only watched his own films, or a fashion designer who refused to look at anyone else's clothes?

    Also, anything you write may, potentially, be part of a wider debate. A while ago, Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian's film critic, wrote a piece on the purpose of film criticism and one of the comments was so ill-advised it stuck with me to the point where I have been able to dig it out fairly easily now:

    "As a film review blogger myself I'm certainly I'm not that interested in reading other people's film reviews – this is why I set up my blog in the first place"

    That's like turning up to a debate with your headphones in. And, as you say in point 3, it is arrogant – and foolhardy.

    My first ever boss said to me: "Writers have the best job in the world, because you can say what you want and nobody can interupt you." That doesn't mean you don't need to listen as well as talk.

    Oh, and one last thing. If you go for an interview for any kind of writing job, you will almost certainly be asked which writers you like. I know a few people who have fallen down at this point because they were only prepared to talk about themselves.

  • Sorry, Anne – your post ended up in Spam and only just fished it out. Some great points. Glad you posted – I think it was you many mistakes ago who suggested 'not reading' ought to be my next one. Finally got around to it…

  • Lucy – absolutely! Is there any other job in which an early night with a good book counts as 'working hard' ?!

  • And Alex – yes. About 20 books on my TBR pile at present, though I have a feeling I might have been on Amazon last night again…

  • Womag – it's just too tempting, isn't it? I'm worse on eBay, actually. If I see a tempting and bidless book I can't help going in to rescue it…

  • Oh bloody hell! I've just bought a Kindle from Amazon – now I have a virtual 'to be read' pile too!

  • At least a virtual pile doesn't fall over. Mine topples all over the place! And then one sneaks under the bed, and I find it 3 months later covered in dust.

  • I am peering out from behind a wall of books waiting to be read, even though I make time to read every day. I just need an extra few hours so that I can read more. However, I agree with you absolutely – no time to read, no tools to write.

  • Thanks for your advice to read more widely. I've started reading more magazines and newspapers- some of which I have never read before, such as 'The Lady' and others. I have to confess I have an aversion to 'The Sun' and similar tabloids. Do you think I should try and read them anyway, for the sake of research?

  • I don't see why not. Doesn't matter if you hate the publication. If something makes you angry – it can be the inspiration for an article. Read it with that philosophy and it should hopefully make your skin crawl a bit less! I generally advise everyone to read… anything they can lay their hands on (backs of cereal packets, junk mail, etc.)

  • Yes Alex what you suggest for an aspirant writer is something invaluable. The vicarious thrill experienced from the habit of reading enriches our resources and stimulates our mind as a writer..Reading is great fun once it is cultivated. It is also a way to experience life at different levels. Even the captions of an ADVERTISEMENT or a Signboard can stir up thoughts or questions in us.
    Not only we perceive things from the point of view of many people, we also get an interesting clue to write once we intend to refute because we disagree with the writer. Above all we develop our sense of language and expression! Thank you Alex for motivating us to read. The more I read your blogs the more I develop the penchant for writing!

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