Why ‘read a lot’ is bad advice if you want to write

Books

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

One thing I didn’t explore in my previous post is probably the most common piece of advice given to aspiring writers: ‘If you want to write, you must read lots.’ I actually don’t think this is very helpful advice in its current form. Read what? Read lots of books? Read lots of plays and poems? Read lots of magazines and newspapers? Read lots of tinned food labels? Read the IKEA catalogue? And what do you do after you’ve ‘read lots’?

Stephen King’s advice to aspiring writers, for example, is to ‘read a lot and write a lot’. Perhaps it isn’t bad advice, but it is incomplete. It is incomplete because it doesn’t tell you why you should read a lot, or what you’re supposed to read (should I only read literature, or can newspapers, emails, catalogues, etc. count as well?) or how you should read.

As to the second part of his advice – ‘write a lot’ – I covered the problems of just ‘writing a lot’ in my previous post about my friend’s friend: you do need to learn how to write well, you do need feedback on what you’ve written to help you, and if you can’t do that then simply writing a lot is only going to reinforce bad habits.

As a Maths graduate who is used to very specific, step-by-step instructions and methods of working, the ‘read a lot’ part of Stephen King’s advice was something I got stuck on. (This post isn’t meant as a criticism of the amazingly talented Stephen King, by the way; I’m simply using his quote as an example of the advice to ‘read a lot’.) But no matter which author advised it, it was always the advice I got stuck on due to the reason I gave above – it’s incomplete advice. And because it’s incomplete, because it’s not specific about what it means, for some aspiring writers this could end up being ‘bad advice’.

“Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” – Albert Einstein

Here’s what I think: Read it all… but read analytically. Ask yourself questions: do I enjoy reading this book/play/poem/article/food label, and why? How does this writing make me feel, and why? Why has the author used these words / this particular language / this form or structure, and what effect is it trying to convey? How does the author deal with the passage of time in this piece? When are these events happening and how do I know this – what words has the author chosen to tell me this? How does this article use language to convey complex concepts to the layman? How does this food label tell me what I need to know (or if it doesn’t, how and why not)?

OK, I admit I am being facetious about the food labels, but even then: you never know what you will absorb from what you read, and you never know how you will find a use for it in your writing. You will not lose anything by reading it all – novels, non-fiction books, articles, plays, poems, marketing brochures or anything else you can get your hands on – and your analysis, even just a simple analysis, will help you understand why you are writing what you write.

However, if you know you want to write on a particular topic, or within a particular genre, it is often a good idea to read frequently and widely within that topic or genre. As a commenter on my previous post (Hiren Desai) remarked: ‘Read as much as you can of the sort of thing *you* want to write. If you want to write fantasy read a lot of the most well-received fantasy. If you want to write crime fiction, read that. If you want to write literary fiction, read as much as you can of the great works of literature. The same goes for non-fiction, journalism, whatever it is you want to write. And when you read, pay attention to what works well and what doesn’t. If you like a certain book, try to figure out what it is about it that you like. Same goes for books you dislike. I’m not saying you should just copy what others do, but seeing how others make their writing work well and seeing what they get wrong will help you with your own writing.’

In short, you need to read like a writer. You need to ask yourself who, what, why, how, where, and maybe even when, while you read. It isn’t enough to just ‘read’ – you need to know all about what you’re reading, who the audience is, why it is or isn’t effective, when and where ideas or language can come in useful… and how you can apply all this to your own writing.

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One thought on “Why ‘read a lot’ is bad advice if you want to write

  1. Great advice. I don’t think what you read is anywhere near as important as learning to read critically. I’ve probably learned more about writing from the stuff that made me think “Jeez, who did you have to sleep with to get that published?” than the stuff that I loved and wanted to emulate..

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