Reading for Writers


A little while ago, I talked about how revealing it is to write. It’s true…you can’t hide when you are writing. What and how well you think, what and how well you feel – it’s all there, all over the pages. 

And what’s also visible is how much and what you’ve read.

Every author I know would rather read than breathe, if they were only given a choice. I read, I recently told a third year class, about a novel a day, or two or three days. And that’s with my busy life as a writer, teacher and mother. When I was their age, I usually read one in the morning before classes and one in the evening. They looked at me as though I’d suddenly sprouted antennae. 

I read very quickly, but I have excellent retention. Sometimes I forget the name of the author, or the title of the book, but I remember the characters, the setting, the plot and whole segments of text.

And that latter bit is very important. Every time we read, we are unconsciously absorbing technique. We see how the author handles the technical challenges of fiction. We’re not only enjoying the story and the beauty of the writing…we’re building a library of technique. 

Some of my undergraduate students worry about writing too much like the authors they read. In fact, some of them use it as an excuse not to read. But the answer to that is to read more, not less.

The more widely you read, the more and different approaches to the technical challenges of writing fiction you absorb. How Jane Austen uses punctuation is much different to how William Burroughs uses punctuation and you never know when the perfect solution to where you put that tricky comma will come from one or the other. 

But of course the real value of reading widely comes from that connection between reading fiction and empathy. The more you read, the more empathy you can feel about different kinds of people. Young women, pressured to marry if they are to avoid poverty, for example. Or a junky trying to survive in a menacing and unknowable world. 

And that means the you that is revealed in your writing is a better you, with every book you read. 





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