Today, my message may be a bit redundant. I want to highlight a point that almost everyone I read or listen to on the subject of writing seems to say: if you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader. Among the exhortations given to aspiring writers, the call to read is one of the most consistent, and for good reason. And while I know the idea verges on the cliche, I also know it took me far too long to actually understand the importance of reading in the life of a writer.
I remember loving the idea of writing from an early age. I grew up around stories. Star Wars and Star Trek sparked my imagination with wonder when I was little. When I got older, the fantasy worlds of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia joined the science fiction worlds already established. Through comics and book series and novels, my imagination continued to grow, filling with characters and plots and twists. A trip to Barnes and Noble could (and still does) captivate my mind with dreams of what I could read and what I could write.
Unfortunately, I didn’t read nearly as much as I thought about reading. I’d buy intriguing books and collect engaging series, yet would end up with volumes of unread pages on my shelf. I loved the idea of reading more than I actually read. And I felt similarly about writing. I loved the idea, but I didn’t actually write all that much. I believed myself to love both reading and writing, yet I did embarrassingly little of either.
Looking back at that season, I see the absurdity of wanting to write while not wanting to read. The situation is a bit like desiring to preach while disliking the church or like desiring to be an athlete while disliking exercise and training. You might also compare the approach to that of an aspiring musician who dislikes listening to music. In each situation, something key is missing. The pursuit of the art seems to necessitate a familiarity with its context. So with reading and writing.
Reading isn’t just a good habit to adopt; it’s a necessary fuel for writing. Reading sharpens you, exposing you to new perspectives and ideas while challenging your own. Reading encourages you, introducing you to others who share your convictions and deepening your understanding. But reading does more than this. Reading helps you to find your voice, shaping how you write as you read the voices of others. Reading fills your imagination, providing you with stories and statements which enable you to think more critically. Reading shows you areas of interest in your readers: questions in need of answers, problems in need of solutions, and subjects in need of explanations. The more you read, the better equipped you will be to enter the conversation with your own writing. When you avoid reading, however, you remain ignorant of much that is necessary to good writing. And ignorance is no virtue, especially when your writing will influence how your readers think and act.
Most writers (if not all of them) will tell you this advice over and over again. But it’s advice we who write must never forget: if you wish to write, read. Read the books of those who are writing to the audience you wish to reach. Read the books your audience is reading. Read books on writing. Read novels. Read poetry. Read blogs and articles and comments and conversations. Read the news. Read tweets and status updates. Read widely and thoroughly and curiously. Read for work and read for pleasure. Always be reading. And out of the overflow, write. Learn from the greats and from the not-so-greats. Learn from those like you and from those unlike you. Incorporate the lessons into your own work and grow continually into a better reader and a better writer. Both you and your audience will be better for it.
Thanks to Jamie K. for her help in editing this post.