One of the most valuable techniques writers have to sharpen our craft is the act of reading.
Reading other books is a tried and true way of improving our skills. Despite this, many writers barely read at all, either from a lack of time, or too often from the misguided belief that reading isn’t an essential skill for writing.
If you’re a writer who’s been neglecting your reading and doesn’t see how beneficial it can be, fear not! Here are a few reasons why reading is so important to your writing experience. These are some things you can pay attention to as you read to maximize the experience.
1. Reading lets you absorb craft.
It’s a wonderful experience to get swept away in a great book, right? To be taken on a journey with believable characters, a vivid setting, a robust plot, and/or immersive voice. (Virtually every book we enjoy has at least one of those things!) But this doesn’t have to be a passive experience. As you read a compelling book, pay attention to what’s “behind the curtain.” You might gravitate toward a particular character, so ask yourself why exactly that is – is it their crisp dialogue, or the way the narrative seems to center around them, or the well-chosen details about their appearance? Take notes as you go along. Don’t worry–you don’t have to actually keep physical notes! Though, hey, if it helps you, you certainly can.
Every book has lessons to teach you about craft. The more you read, the easier it will be to absorb these lessons unconsciously, as you read. Even books you dislike have things to teach you. After all, a great way to know if you don’t want to do something in your own writing is to see it fall flat in another book.
2. Reading lets you absorb ideas.
Every writer has the experience of staring at a blank page and not knowing what to do with it. However, if you’re actively reading a book, you may be able to unlock some ideas for your own work. For example, I often struggle with plot in my own writing–it’s one of my biggest weaknesses. As a result, I constantly read through other books in an attempt to crib notes on plot. What good ideas are being used effectively? I’m currently reading Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath, which opens with an intense chapter of Juliet, the protagonist, coming out to her family at dinner. Since I always write LGBTQ protagonists, that gave me some ideas of how to approach the subject in my next work-in-progress.
I’m not saying it’s a good idea to copy ideas wholesale–that’s downright rude. But you could still take inspiration from other people’s work. In my example, Juliet Takes a Breath starts with Juliet taking charge of her own life, as represented by her coming out. I’m taking that inspiration and trying to put my own spin on it. Also, I write middle grade, and Juliet Takes a Breath is YA; despite this, I’m still learning a lot from reading the book. You can learn from any book, even adult books and nonfiction, no matter what age you write for.
That said, it’s a good idea to focus primarily on books that are similar to your own. Which brings us to…
3. Reading lets you see what else is being written about your subject.
I was once given the advice to not read books that are similar in subject or scope to what I’m currently working on so as not to be influenced by them. However, now I ask: what’s wrong with being influenced? If I read a book that came out last year that’s similar to my work-in-progress, I can see how the book approaches my subject. What does it do that’s similar, and what does it do that’s different? What are some pitfalls it falls into that I want to avoid? The kidlit publishing market is constantly changing, so it helps to be up on what’s actually being published, particularly about areas you plan to write about. (I have a whole big thing about especially needing to read modern kidlit, but you’ll need to take the Mini if you want to hear about that!)
These are just a few of the reasons reading is so valuable. If you haven’t been reading a lot lately, it’s okay! Life gets in the way sometimes. Be kind to yourself. If you want to read more, or read more efficiently, or find more joy in reading, consider joining me for Reading Like a Writer for more nuggets of wisdom. As they like to say in school, reading is fundamental.