As a new writer, one of the hardest lessons I learned (aside from the sheer hard work of writing) was that I would no longer be able to pick up a book to simply read for pleasure.
The core habit I’m discussing here is something that we as writers must be able to do – that of reading as a writer – or developing some x-ray lens when we read.
Reading and lots of it
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I am aware of, no shortcut…” and “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” ~ Stephen King
“Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.” Al Kennedy.
Second only to the writer’s maxim “Writer’s Write” comes this one – “Writers Read”. It’s easy to understand – we often come to our writing dream after years of reading for pleasure. Like artists who visit galleries, many of us spent childhoods as avid readers and spend a lot of time in book stores:- selecting, and breathing in the smell of crisp new pages.
Unfortunately I sometimes read some new writers saying that they don’t enjoy or find time for reading. I can understand that a little in our world of so much noise, and where free ebooks are offered as marketing devices so that our To-Read lists are huge mountains, not piles. I have that problem too.
But it seems sad that those people are giving up the most important (and cheap) tool of all in improving our writing – so many books contain the blueprints to structure, characterization, plotting, emotions, dialog, voice, knowledge and our craft.
I also question the credibility of somebody who writes (and expects people to buy their work, perhaps) without reading. With most Western countries now having national reading challenges and events to support our younger generations into reading more, as writers we also need to support fellow writers in our own core habits, and provide that example for our kids.
Find time. Read.
Reading as a Writer
“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.” PD James.
Now comes the punch. Reading does not make you a better writer. Only writing can do that. Writing and more writing. Just like a painter – if an aspiring artist looks at pretty paintings in the gallery all day long, he doesn’t suddenly become an artist. He has to go look at the paintings he admires again, and more critically, work out where the brush strokes went, how the artist used light, what emotions they tried to invoke, what they were really saying between the strokes. Then he has to go and find his own canvas, his own paints, and his own story, and try to paint it. Then paint it a bit better.
It’s the same with reading. Reading alone will not make you a better writer. Reading critically and practicing writing, will.
As writers, when reading, we must stay aware. Rather than letting ourselves be totally absorbed in a good book, we need to read for form and content, watch how the writer does what he does, and how we are reacting to it. Books (pages, posts…) are our products, and also our tools for learning and improving.
Not every item must be read as a writer. But look out for works that capture your imagination, and those that don’t. Why? For those in between – ask yourself how you might learn from them, what you would have done differently, better?
The Writer’s Core Habit Pack for X-Ray Reading
“I read in order to write. I read out of obsession with writing.” Cynthia Ozick
- Create a reading habit– include the goal within your yearly and life goals (See G is for Goals). Focus on creating the reading habit for a period of days until it is concrete (See H is for Habits)
- Have a reading time and trigger. As with your writing habit, set a regular reading time each day, and have a trigger for it. A trigger can be a place, time, alarm, or certain event.
- Take your reading with you on the road. I do a lot of reading from my iPAD, while waiting for my daughter to finish her swimming lessons, for instance. I also read over lunch, and I read blog posts etc at particular times.
- Choose some inspiring reading – Choose from the award winners, bestsellers and classics. Good work inspires us to work and write in a similar vein.
- Some authors such as Hunter S. Thompson spent much time simply copying down the works of great masters.
- Many writing teachers suggest we rip off the words of others that we like, and use them within our own writing work to practice the techniques (then go back and revise them!)
- Don’t read to accomplish anything – like reading a novel you aren’t enjoying just to get to the end, or reading because you were given the book by an author friend hoping for a review. Read for the sake of reading only.
- Feel free to put down that awful book and not finish it, once you’ve analysed it. Now, with ebooks and free-books, many of us have huge to-read lists.
- Be mindful in reading and analyse to:
- be aware of words and how they work, or when they don’t work; aware of structure, phrases, content, well-roundness, plot sense, character-sense.
- if you find problems with what you are reading, don’t dismiss the work until you’ve worked through how you would fix it, what parts you would keep, what would be cut?
- Read a lot from inside your genre, and outside of it. Expand your reading and this may break out your writing also.
- Read slowly and breathe it in
- Francine Prose (what a brilliant last name for a writer) in the book, ‘Reading Like a Writer’ says this: “With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because . . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.”
- Keep a Reading Log – choose any method to suit – a beautiful journal, an online reading site such as LibraryThing or GoodReads, an app, a Word document. Choose some system for notating your reading (a rating system, your thoughts, date etc).
“The six golden rules of writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write.” – Ernest Gaines
- You can find some further questions to ask yourself as a reader from “How to Read Like a Writer” by Mike Bunn. This is an excerpt from a book, ‘Writing Spaces’. (PDF link)
- The Guardian UK ‘1000 novels everyone must read’ provides us with a large to-read list to sink into.
- Some Writer quotes on reading.
|Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.)|
- The Term “X-Ray Reading” comes from Roy Clarke’s famous Poynter Institute Writing Tools posts (X-Ray Reading was Tool # 41)which is no longer available online, but you can find a PDF with some of these sold at Scribd.
- The Good Writing / Good Reading chart is a Jessica Hagy chart from her site, Indexed.
This blog post participated in April 2013’s Blogging from A to Z Challenge, along with many other blogs on subjects as diverse as writing, foodie blogs or mummy blogs.
This blog post is part of a themed series or pack on Writer’s Core Habits. I acronym this as WCH or WCHP © . Do a search for these tags, and you will find more in the series.
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