Why Reading Makes You a Better Writer

Hello and happy Wednesday!

Did you know that today is ‘Leave the Office Early Day’? Apparently it’s a real occasion, though I’m not sure how many workplaces actively observe it, haha.

But whether today is a shorter day of work or not, it’s got me thinking…when you have time off, what is it you most like to do? Let’s assume you’re completely caught up with everything else in your life (come on, we can dream for a moment). What is your idea of relaxing free time?

I find the variety of favorite hobbies and pastimes in the world fascinating. What some people find relaxing sounds like work that’s more stressful than an actual job to me. And some things I think are paradise sound like torture to others.

One of the few things I’ve found most people agree to be at least somewhat relaxing is reading.

Not everyone enjoys it of course, but the broad range of things to read makes it more popular than many other hobbies. There’s fiction, and within fiction, countless genres. Historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, mystery, thrillers…the list goes on and on. There seems to be something for everyone, no matter personal tastes.

And if you’re not so much a fiction person, but prefer non-fiction, there are countless options there too. Books from countless authors, topics ranging from how-to’s on nearly every subject and biographies/autobiographies about nearly every historical figure or popular influencer you can think of – and more.

And that’s not even including things like poetry, blog or newspaper articles, and other types of books such as cookbooks and instruction manuals (you do read them!). The point is, we never seem to be short on things to read, if we choose to. And for writers, reading is especially important.

Though there are writers that don’t care to read for one reason or another, it doesn’t seem to be the norm. Most writers are avid readers – and that’s a good thing! Reading the words of others – whether fiction or nonfiction – is one of the fastest ways to improve your own writing skills.

When it comes to fiction, writers can glean many things from reading books by other fiction authors. I’ve always heard that you should write the book you want to read. To do that, you need to know what kind of stories you like. What genres are your favorite? What common story elements, or ‘tropes’, do you especially enjoy? Do you have specific types of characters, settings, plots, or humor that you like to read about? All of those things will influence the types of stories you write.

And in addition to discovering the kind of stories, and the ‘bigger picture’ elements you enjoy most, you can look closer. If you like how realistic the characters in a story are, examine the way the author’s written them. If the worldbuilding feels immersive, check and see how the author accomplished it. If you appreciate the suspense and unexpected plot twists, look back and see how much foreshadowing the author did – and how much they kept secret.

This carries all the way down to nitty-gritty things, like writing styles, sentence structures, grammar interpretations, and dialogue punctuation. How do your favorite authors do it? Do you like the way they do it, and if so, why? Many people start their writing journeys by writing in a similar style to their favorite authors. As they continue to write, their own style will develop, but they may always be influenced by the styles of their writing ‘mentors’.

That’s definitely been true in my life. Looking back at my early writing, I can see how much my favorite childhood books1 influenced the way I wrote stories, and the types of stories I wrote often unashamedly mirrored the ones I was reading. Through the years, my writing style and the stories I’m most passionate about telling have emerged, but when in doubt, I still tend to fall back on styles similar to authors I admire.

And what about the writing and authors we…don’t admire so much? Well, thankfully for us, writers can learn from the things they read – even if they don’t care for them. If you read a truly terrible book, at least you’ve learned what not to do!

If a book’s characters all felt one-dimensional, study them. How could you have written them better? (This is actually a very helpful exercise. Try re-writing sections in popular books that you feel could have been improved, and see what you learn from the practice.)

If a world was confusing or a setting unclear, what were they missing? What kinds of details or descriptions did they have, and what kinds should they have added? Where in the story would they have been most helpful?

If the pacing or the story structure seemed to lag, look for sections they could have cut out or trimmed. Why weren’t those things necessary to the story? And if it felt hurried, what should they have added? What plot points should have been focused on for longer?

I’m grateful that I can’t recall ever reading an outright terrible novel, but there have definitely been ones I’ve been disappointed in. Whether it’s because of plot lines that were never resolved (or resolved badly…), supposed-to-be-likable characters that weren’t, or cringe-y dialogue, I’ve certainly learned some valuable lessons on what not to do.

This process of studying and learning from writing also applies to nonfiction. While you may not be reading about characters, plot lines, or new worlds, nonfiction has qualities and requirements all its own.

Since starting this blog, I’ve discovered many ways that nonfiction is different from fiction, and some that are similar. You’re still often telling stories, you use rhythm and careful structuring, and word choices are crucial. However, it’s done in a different – usually more concise (I have much to learn) – style. There are as many nuances and learning curves as with fiction, and the best way to learn about them is to read from other nonfiction authors.

If you’re ever stuck on a section in your writing, try thinking through (good) examples of how other authors have handled similar pieces. How did they seamlessly weave theme into their novel, make their characters unique, format their paragraphs, or choose words that give clear mental pictures?

What if nothing comes to mind? Then go spend some time hunting through your favorite books for good examples. Not to plagiarize of course, but to draw inspiration and to study why their approach worked well. This strategy has helped me many times, and it’s one of the first things I try when I just can’t seem to write well, or when I need inspiration.

And lastly, if nothing else, reading is excellent at inspiring us to write our own pieces (assuming we don’t allow ourselves to procrastinate by reading of course). A constant stream of material ensures that our minds are always working, always puzzling over plot twists, analyzing descriptions, and learning what believable characters look like – even if we don’t realize it’s happening.

If you can’t find the motivation to work on your novel or article, try taking a break and reading some materials similar to yours. As is often the case for me, you might soon find yourself itching to get back to your writing! And the new input of ideas may help you break past any places you were stuck.

Cautionary note: always carefully examine the new ideas that pop up right after absorbing other materials. Drawing inspiration is wonderful, but I know well how easy it is to accidentally copy things we shouldn’t. If we don’t want to risk people claiming we’ve ripped off the other material (which we may have…), it’s better to be safe and cautious.

So no matter what you write – fiction or nonfiction or anything in between – reading is beneficial. Reading inside your genre, outside your genre, just to relax, or reading with pen and notepad in hand…it all influences our own material. It all contributes to the mental treasure trove of writing information we’ve collected. And it all has the potential to make our own writing even better.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my bookshelf is calling my name.

Thankfully for me, I have yet to find any real flaws with liking to read, haha. Not only is it often entertaining, inspiring, educational, and a relaxing way to spend free time – but I’ve definitely noticed that it carries into my writing too. Even poorly written books can be a valuable learning tool (as for how not to write). So with that considered, off I go to read!

What are YOUR thoughts on how reading affects writing? In your own experience, has reading helped or hindered your writing journey? How? I’d love to find out what you think, so let me know in the comments!

1. I recently shared some of my favorite childhood books, which can be found here.

2. I talked about some of the books I’m hoping to read this year, here.

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