There are two things that every writer has to do: Write a lot and read a lot.
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Why writers read
There is a reason why most, if not all, writers are avid readers too. One reason is of course that writers just can’t help it. There is a deep love in every writer for reading the works of others and to experience a great story. Writers were often drawn to stories and the written world long before we wrote our own.
It is a fact thought that reading, either fiction or nonfiction will have an impact on our own writing. In this article I want to discuss the things you can learn by reading, as well as what you should be careful about.
Reading is one of the easiest ways to develop your vocabulary.
Whenever you read something or come across a word you don’t know, you should either note it down or look it up right away.
Especially nowadays it is very easy to find out the meaning of words right away. There are dictionary apps for mobile phones, there are online dictionaries and most e-readers come with their own preinstalled ones. You should easily be able to extend your vocabulary if put in the little extra effort of looking up the words you don’t know or are unsure about.
A word of warning though, there are certain writers like H. P. Lovecraft, who specifically used a more ornamented vocabulary, rich on hard words as part of their style. You should watch out which words are simply used for stylistic purpose and which carry important information, otherwise your style can easily develop into a pretentious mess.
You will pick up something from every book you read. You will improve your writing skill simply by reading. For example noticing why certain sentence constructions don’t work and why others feel clunky. You will also understand why writes use certain elements in certain way and how to build up scenes and suspense. These are only a few things you be able to learn from reading.
Now of course only reading is not enough. You always have to be writing and use what you learned in your own stories. Whenever you find a certain line, sentence or paragraph that strikes you as extraordinary write it down and reflect on it and think critically about it.
Never focus on one specific type of fiction simply for the effect it would have on your writing. Instead read everything you are interested in, from children’s books to historical novels. You have to get rid of your old prejudices against certain type of fiction. Picking up or at least having a look at a genre that you’d normally not read might teach you something new.
The big question is what should you read? First you can have a look at the Recommended Reading section. Here are a few additional points:
Writers you enjoy:
There should be no doubt about this one, but it goes a little above the simple ‘read what you like’. You will also be able to learn easier from things that evoke strong emotions in you.
Just reading current bestsellers is not enough. I think anyone who wants to be a writer and is serious about it should read the classics or at least give them a try. You can learn many different technical aspects from reading them. Their content too is often eye opening and can broaden our horizon. A few names that come to mind are Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Milton, Melville, Faulkner or Cervantes.
Bad books can teach an aspiring writer a lot. With the classics or well written books there is one problem. We can tell that the writing is excellent, but it is often hard to pinpoint why exactly. In bad books you will read a line of dialogue and know right away what is wrong with it: clichéd expressions, over the top reactions and unnatural speech-patterns. It is of course the same with every other element of fiction.
Genres you want to write:
You can learn from these books both in terms of content as well as presentation. I think it is also important to know about the general genre conventions. If you want to write science-fiction read the works of Asimov or Heinlein. Chekhov is a must read for everyone who wants to write good short stories and you could do much worse than reading the works of Virginia Woolf in case you want to write Experimental fiction.
Things to be careful about
Not all reading is good reading per se. There are a few points that you should be careful about that I want to outline here as well.
What you read is what you write:
What you read will unconsciously influence you. This can cause problems if all you read is very different from what you plan to write.
If you only read pulp novels for example, in which characters throw profanities at each other and talk in common day street slang, you will have characters that sound like them. This can be troublesome if you want to write historical fiction set in the middle ages for.
In today’s time and age we all read stuff on the internet on a daily bases.
There is a specific danger to many online communities or social media. What comes to mind are places like Reddit as well as Facebook. Often they have their own specific vocabulary or slang. Yet another problem is that people online are often somewhat more lax when it comes to following grammar or orthography. As we established before, everything you read is influencing you. So the chances are that when you spend a lot of time on these page, you might unconsciously adopt specific slang or vocabulary.
Whenever you notice that you start to incorporate certain styles, slang or vocabulary that has a negative effect on your writing, make it an effect to counter it. It might be time to change your reading habits or to spend less time on social media or specific online communities.
To end this article I want to not so much emphasize the above points, but want to reiterate my starting point: Every writer has to read a lot if he wants to learn how to write well.