Reading: Osmosis Education
In general, writers are also readers, certainly successful writers are.
Some will admit to not having read the classics, the great works of literature that intelligent people are supposed to have read, but it’s really rare to find a writer who simply doesn’t read for enjoyment or learning. There are a lot of reasons for that. One is that people who are driven to tell stories (whether the true stories of nonfiction or the sometimes even truer stories of fiction) are also hungry to consume stories. And stories are most readily found between the covers of a book.
But a love of story is not the only reason that more successful writers are also readers. Reading is one of the best writing teachers in existence because reading teaches us while we’re not aware of it. Reading lets us live inside the mechanics of how dialogue works, how different people sound, how print on a page can create images in our heads. Reading lets us do something that watching a movie does not: it lets us enjoy the story at the exact same time we’re watching the mechanics of the story at work. You can’t do that with a movie. Watching the characters on the screen doesn’t let us peek into how the set was staged or how the script was written. All the mechanism of the movie are hidden from the viewer in ways that simply cannot happen with a book. With a book, we can become so caught up in the story that the mechanics behind it pass through us without conscious notice, but it’s still there, right in front of us. And it’s still being processed by the amazing thing that is the human brain.
Reading in, Writing Out
When the brain is called on to write our own stories, it pulls out those bits it absorbed while we were reading, and it simply uses them in the creation of our own story. That’s why reading massively in the genre we want to write is so helpful, because it feeds all the mechanical bits into our brain while we’re just sitting back and being entertained. For instance, if you want to write a truly wonderful picture book, it’s important not to simply remember being read to as a child, but instead to head off to the library and read piles and piles of picture books. Read new books and old books and books in the middle. Picture books have grown shorter and tighter but they’ve always been all about beautiful language and the marriage of words and images, so if you want to write picture books that will be published, you need to be reading them now. Lots of them.
Writing in other genres can be similarly helped along. When I was offered a chance to write a cozy mystery for adults, I took a week and read all the cozy mysteries I could fit into my day. I’d loved cozies as a teen and a young woman, but I knew I needed to be much fresher in the way those books worked. And so I read them. And then I wrote one. It wasn’t the best cozy mystery in the world, but it was published and loved by some readers. That’s really the most we can hope for. Not a one of us will write a book that every reader loves. But we can write a book loved by some readers, and that’s a wonderful thing.
For writers, there are two kinds of reading. Some reading is done simply to learn to do something better. If you know you struggle with plot, then reading a lot of books with carefully crafted plots will help you become better at plotting, especially if you pay attention to how the plot worked. Sometimes that requires close reading, which means reading it once for fun and then again with a focus on how the book works, paying attention to the mechanics churning away behind the story.
Close reading for something like a picture book, can be enhanced by typing out the text of the picture book on your computer so you can look at how it exists simply as words. But that kind of close reading on a novel is likely to be a little too much. Still, buying copies of a few books that do what you want to do will let you put sticky notes on the pages that you thought were most brilliantly done and let you scribble notes in the margins. It will let you treat the book like a text book, a teacher for the things you want to do. Now that doesn’t mean you’re going to copy what the writer did. None of the cozy mysteries I’ve written are like the ones I’ve read by other authors. But they do have some things in common, because they taught me things like the importance of making my amateur detective’s motivation believable, and giving the book a strong emotional core.
Even though I still do close reading when I want to learn a new skill, I also do lots and lots of reading for the pure joy of reading and experiencing the stories of others, especially authors whose work I love. This is because the more I read good books, the more my own writing simply gets better. And if you do the same by reading piles of good books, your writing will benefit as well. And that can only help in our writing journey.