Why Good Writers Read
Why Creative Writers Must Read
In his book “On Writing,” Steven King says when giving a speech, there is one question he is consistently asked at question time. It is, “What do you read?” In his book he says that it is an impossible question to answer because he reads so many books that it is not possible to answer in a minute or less. In his book, he gives a long list.
If you’re an indie author, you’ve no doubt been told that it’s good to market your books to other writers, because writers read. Right? Only here’s the thing. Today, most ‘writers’ don’t read. You can look at the statistics for that. Only 5% of people in first world countries read, and of that 5%, only 2% read with any frequency. Reading a book or two per year does not make someone a reader. An average reader reads, at least, a book a week.
Here’s the bugbear. According to some statistics years ago, 80% of Americans wanted to be a writer. So that means 75% of the people who want to write don’t read.
Do All Successful Writers Read?
When I was working for the Mail and Guardian (at the time, an offshoot of the Guardian in London), I spoke to Maggie Philips, the publisher at David Philips publishing in South Africa. She asked me whether I read fiction or non-fiction. “Predominantly non-fiction,” I replied. She then told me that all her writers (including Nobel prize and Booker prize winners) read non-fiction.
She took for granted that I read – it was just a matter of what I read!
Rhythm in Writing Makes Text Pop!
Why Is It Important for Writers To Read?
There is great argument whether creative writing is a talent or whether it can be learnt. There is, of course, no doubt that literacy is learnt. We can all learn good grammar, sentence structure, paragraph organization and the various technical aspects of writing. So what differentiates a talented writer from someone who has an admirable grasp of the technicalities of writing?
Rhythm and Imagination!
There is a certain rhythm in writing, just as there is a certain rhythm in speaking. It cannot be taught, and I suspect that is where the ‘talent’ lies.
Reading is not optional for a writer.
Rhythm in Writing
All good writing has a particular rhythm. Just like rhythmic poetry, the words have a certain metre. Because English has many different synonyms, there is a variety of words one can use to describe something. For instance, the words attractive, pretty, lovely, beautiful all mean something similar. The writer who has an ear for the rhythm of what s/he is writing will select the word that enhances the rhythm of the piece.
One of the reasons academic writing is so tedious to read is because it lacks this rhythm. Of course, there are academic writers who do have that rhythm, but it is the exception not the rule.
The other vital aspect of this is that many wannabe writers fail because they are unaware that the general timbre of their writing jars with the reader. Someone who has read six or seven books a month immediately picks up this lack of rhythm. They won’t read any further. I know I won’t.
So powerful is this rhythm, that until fairly recently, editors of magazines and newspapers simply read one or two paragraphs of someone’s writing in order to determine whether they could write or not.
Learning Rhythm in Writing
First let me draw an analogy here.
If you learn to speak a language when you are very young, you speak like a native with the same natural rhythm and the same pronunciation. When you attempt to learn to speak a foreign language in your later years, you struggle with the pronunciation (virtually impossible for some languages) and the rhythm is really difficult to acquire. People will always know that you aren’t a native speaker – more or less as you open your mouth to speak.
The reason that you struggle to learn pronunciation later is because it is the epiglottis in the throat which forms sound. When we are young, it is still forming, and it is able to make any sounds we ask of it. However, by time we are teenagers, it is fully formed, and then the epiglottis cannot form sounds it did not learn earlier. The answer, you see, is physiological.
We learn rhythm in writing when we are very young. I started reading books and magazines in the first week of my second year at school. That was because the teacher showed us a small comic book and told us about a library. I took the comic book home with me, read it and was hooked! It took another week for me to persuade my mother to register me at the library and from that day on, throughout my school days, I read two books a day during school time and four books a day during vacation time.
That’s where I learnt rhythm in writing. Simply reading the work of other writers for an extended length of time when you are very young is where you absorb the rhythm of good writing. Writers absorb the rhythm of other writers, and they do it from a very young age when the brain is still forming and they are learning language. Learning to write in a rhymic way is as much a way of 'picking up another language' as learning the spoken word.
So the bottom line is this: if you don’t read and if you have never read substantially, regardless of how good your grammar and your structure is, you don’t have an ear for the rhythm of writing, and you won’t even know that it’s missing. But your reader will… Ironically, those writers who wish for feedback from others aren’t able to recognize the lack in their own writing precisely because they don’t read sufficiently.
Years ago, I attended a week’s summer school for writers in the UK. I attended for two days before walking out. Here’s why.
On the second day, I attended a fantasy workshop. We were all seated around in a horseshoe arrangement, and the professor (a self-published author) gave us a five minute assignment. We were to think of two characters, a magical item, a goal, a plot, etc. In order to do this, she passed around a hat with some names in it (for one of the characters), and gave us a list of magical items we could use, etc. She also said we needn’t use any of those.
For myself, I selected a character from South African Xhosa mythology, put him on the high seas in a boat reminiscent of one of Frank Yerby’s yarns, and concocted a plot that came together from stitching a recent news story in the Czech Republic with a set of circumstances that used to exist in ancient Greece.
Then the moment came we were to tell our stories to the room. I was sitting in the middle of the horseshoe arrangement.
The first lady started and I recognized all the components from JK Rowling. Everybody applauded and clapped. The second lady gave her story, also all components from JK Rowling. Everybody applauded and clapped The third lady also drew her story from JK Rowling and everybody applauded and clapped. The forth lady was a bit different. She took her components from Anne Rice, and the fifth one from Enid Blyton. But there was not an original thought amongst them.
And then it was my turn.
I gave my story and when I had finished, there was a dead silence. Not a single person clapped. No applause.
I cannot begin to explain to you the degree of my embarrassment and humiliation. And then the girl next to me gave her story and, yup, another JK Rowling wannabe plus a Tolkien wannabe plus a Gaiman and Pratchett wannabe. And they were all applauded and clapped for.
The next day was the second day of the course, and I never went back. Afterwards, the professor approached me and asked me why I hadn’t returned. I was too embarrassed to tell her how humiliated I was. Imagine what I felt when she said, “I selected your story to work on – it was the only one that evidenced any imagination.”
Yup. I packed up my stuff a few hours later and went home.
How many books do you read a year?
So Where Does Imagination Come From?
It comes from reading non-fiction books. It comes from reading news. It comes from reading academic books.
There’s a reason Isaac Asimov was a science professor and Robin Cook qualified as a medical doctor and Wayne Dyer was a psychiatrist. The core of all imagination is an extensive factual knowledge base.
Imagination comes from intense different life experiences. It comes from traveling It comes from being extremely poor and extremely rich. It comes from anguish and joy examined and overcome.
I once spoke to a professional writer. She specialized in business writing and wanted to know where I got my ideas from (I never struggle for ideas.) I told her that I read a lot. She explained to me that she read a lot as well. I asked her what she read. She said detective fiction. I asked her what she wanted to write. She told me detective fiction. I asked her if she had ever read a forensic science book. She said no. I asked her if she had ever read a police report. She said no. So I explained to her that she had no knowledge of the genre she wanted to write in, and that’s why her imagination was not functioning very well.
In order to have imagination, you have to have a large source of non-factual information. If you look at the lives of the world’s best selling authors, you will find that they read extensively (at least a book a week), travel widely, are generally well educated, and they are thinkers not feelers!
So that’s why good writers read.
Oh, they also read because reading is an extremely pleasurable activity. And the more you read, the faster you get. By the age of fourteen, I was reading 500 pages in an hour, and the good news is that if you start reading a book a week now, in no time at all, you should be able to read a book in an hour or two.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Tessa Schlesinger