I came across a frightening piece of writing advice recently. Someone had asked a writing blog if writers need to read. They wanted to know if they could become a published author without picking up someone else’s novel. The answer: something along the lines of “yes, you can”.
Sure, you can write things if you don’t read. Anyone can put words on paper. We write emails, text messages and Facebook posts every day. However, there’s a huge difference between writing status updates and writing novels, and this particular asker wrote fiction with the intention of publishing it.
In my line of work, I obviously read a lot of fiction. Whether it’s work or not, I can usually tell when the writer of a particular piece is not a reader. If it’s not work, I stop reading immediately. If it is work, boy do I have a lot to say in my editorial report.
If you want to write good novels, you need to read them.
Here are the two fundamental reasons why I believe writers need to read — and read widely.
Reading teaches you how to write a good novel
Writers who don’t read often don’t know the first thing about pace and plot development. Their stories lack conflict, stakes, motivation, purpose, tension, characterisation, you name it. This is why I can usually tell when a writer isn’t a big reader.
The ability to come up with an idea for a story comes naturally to a lot of people and many seem to think that once they have this idea, they also have the ability to turn it into a novel; however, novels aren’t just made of ideas. Novels contain a plot and, sadly, plotting isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. The ability to plot comes from familiarisation with plots, which comes from reading.
Say you came up with an idea about a boy finding out he’s a wizard and going off to magic school. Someone who doesn’t read might sit down at their computer and start writing, hoping this idea will take them somewhere. What they probably won’t realise is that ‘boy finds out he’s a wizard and goes off to magic school’ is not a story. It’s just a concept.
For a writer who reads, developing this concept into a story is going to come naturally because, having familiarised themselves with what makes a story, they’ll know exactly what they need to consider. On the other hand, a writer who doesn’t read might get as far as introducing a conflict and not realise there’s much, much more they need to think about for their story to be compelling. The pace will be all over the place, the characters will be flat and unsympathetic, there’ll be nothing at stake, and there’ll probably be too much figurative language.
Reading teaches you how to write a terrible novel
Terrible novels teach bad habits when not offset with good novels.
Back in the day when Twilight exploded with popularity, young readers picked up similar books and then tried their hand at writing their own. The thing was, they had so little reading experience that the flaws of these popular novels were not understood, and these young writers jumped into the writing world thinking that these bad techniques were just facts of book writing. The same kinds of books were read over and over, and the same mistakes were made over and over, never to be fixed because no one in these communities knew any better.
The more you read, the more you’re able to tell what doesn’t make a good book. To differentiate between good writing and bad writing, good storytelling and bad storytelling, clichés and originality, writers need to read frequently and read widely.
Sign up to get your free workbook