Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Do You Need to Be Well-Read to Be a Good Writer?

In the comments section of yesterday's post, Mira raised an interesting question: do you really need to be well-read to be a good writer?

William Faulkner also weighed in with a comment (okay, it was John Ochwat reprinting a William Faulkner quote): "Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window."

I'm guessing that most people would agree that one should be at least somewhat to very well-read if you're going to write.

But how well-read do you need to be? And especially: how well-read in your particular genre do you need to be? Should you be familiar with everything or should you stay away to avoid influences to your writerly voice?

And what's well-read anyway?


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Richard Kriheli said...

well read is tricky. if you consume a lot of garbage you may find it difficult to differentiate between trash and solid prose. so in that light, i disagree (gulp!) with faulkner.

Jo Deurbrouck said...

Responding to the bit about being well-read in your genre: depends on the genre and your place inside it, but I find that my own writing is benefited more by reading widely across many forms and genres than by reading deeply into one.

Andre Vienne said...

I'd say it would be very, very good to be very well read. Especially in one's own genre, and especially in the classics of said genre.

Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, when it comes to science fiction, you have to read those, to know what you're compared against. Also, so that you don't write a story that'll be too similar to the current big stories. That way, you don't stumble into unflattering comparisons without knowing what you're being compared against.

I'd say it's necessary. But since I'm a geeky genre fiction writer, most ideas have already been done, and just tend to be painted and updated, really. New things are very, very rare.

Flemmily said...

I definitly think you need to be a reader to be a writer. For one, you stay in the loop about what's been done, what's been selling, etc.

But, at a more basic level, if you're a reader, you're examining the craft and artistry of other writers--you're looking for the seams that hold their works together.

I think that makes all the difference.

Besides, why would you enjoy writing if you don't enjoy books? And if you enjoy books, isn't it painful not to be reading them?

In college I was advised not to do a creative writing major. I was advised to do plain ol' English Lit.

And let me tell you, when I did take writing classes, it definitely showed. I stood out positively.

If you read good things, you're more apt to write good things.

I understand the argument about not reading things too similar to what you're writing, so that you don't accidentally copy elements of that writing style. I get it. It's bad.

But, isn't it just as bad to unknowingly re-write a book that's already out in the world out of sheer ignorance?

Personally, reading books gets me fired up about the books I write.

Thus, I'll continue to do so. :)

Lisa Katzenberger said...

I think you need to be very well read in your genre. It helps to know what's been done before, and what's been done well and not so well. Don't worry about other stories ruining your voice -- if it's strong enough, it will come out as yours and yours alone!

Shakier Anthem said...

I can understand not wanting to read a book very much like the one you're trying to write while you're trying to write it. But in general, yes, I think one does need to read *a lot*, widely, and often to be a good writer.

Learning grammar and mechanics of language is only half of learning to write; there's so much about plot, character, tone, theme, etc. that can only be learned by absorption from good books.

joelle said...

I am a strong believer in reading if you want to be good at your craft. I even have a blog called Need to Read. I've written articles on how reading can teach you to write and on the self-study program I developed for myself a few years ago. It worked for me. I made it over that hump of "lots of interest, but not quite ready" to "soon to be published."

However, my opinion is widening a bit. I used to think that one had to read within one's genre to really get the benefits of reading into their writing. And actually, I do still stand by this for the most part. But recently I've met two writers, Deb Caletti and Susan Juby, who read a lot, but very rarely in the genre they write in (YA). Their books are different than anything else out there, I think. Quirky and of their own style and voice. So there's something to be said for their approach too. I like YA. I like to read it and I like to write it, so while I've expanded what I read to include other genres, it's probably always going to be my primary reading material.

Kathryn Magendie said...

You know, I do believe to be a good writer, one must read; however, beyond that it's anybody's game, it's free for all, it's whatever, for the most part.

I read lots of trash in my 20s, then expanded to the Stephen Kings, Laurence Sanders et al, horrors/detective/thrillers in my 30's, and by time I reached my 40s and into my now 52ies, I was reading a lot of "general fiction" - things I like to write about: family, friendships, home, place, belonging but sometimes I still read the occassional "trash" (trash being in the eye of the beholding reader I suppose!)

I just think it's important to read what you enjoy, and every now and then branch out and try something new just to see what's out there, stretch out a bit.

I've been an voracious reader since I was a little bitty thing, but I didn't read VW until I was 51. Didn't read many of the "classics" until I was 50. And I can't rattle off the 'questions' to many literary 'answers' on jeapardy - but, I think I'm a pretty decent writer *smiling*

Cat said...

Well, I definitely think writers need to love reading. If you don't like books, why bother trying to write them? And those who love reading are usually some variation on well-read, which could mean a lot of things (widely read, voracious within a certain category, so on). I used to believe that when writing a a specific work-in-progress, one should avoid reading similar things; but now I'm sort of convinced of the opposite, that reading within one's genre while writing can lead to inspiration, not inadvertent plagiarism or voice-imitation. Read what you want to while writing, I say, and then when it comes time to submit, make sure you do your research on any similar works out there.

SB said...

I think it's important to enjoy reading to be a writer. So many people say, "I can write a novel -- it's not hard," but rarely does one write a good one if they don't also enjoy reading novels. Writing is hanging out with the characters your create, and reading is hanging out with someone else's characters. You need to understand that enjoyment to be a good writer.

I agree that you should read everything, but it's important to read some good stuff along with the bad. I sometimes go on reading benders and read a lot of fluffy novels at once. When I write during these phases, my writing gets a lot less complex than if I'm reading more literary works. My new rule is one serious novel to each fluffy novel, but sometimes it's hard to stick to... ;)

Scott said...

Yes. But as Richard more or less mentioned, you need to be able to discern what is good writing and what needs work. So not only should you read a lot, you should "study" writing, as well. Just like knowing the rules before breaking them, becoming familiar with accomplished prose will allow you to tweak it to what is interesting and entertaining for you.

As for personal genre, there's no way an aspiring author can read everything. But some exploration and experimentation may see you discover kindred spirits. They'll help guide you, as well as keep you on your toes in terms of what's been done before. Again, read the works, and read about them.

And since Dan Brown seems to work himself into every conversation about the publishing industry these days, did anyone else see this article on the Telegraph website that analyzes Dan Brown's 20 Worst Sentences?

Sure, it's played a bit for laughs, but if nothing else, it's a damn good short lesson.

Mariana said...

I'm all for read, read, read as much as you can, and then read more for inspiration.

In my view it's always better to read the good stuff and follow good examples. Poor writing only gets to my nerves (snort, how pretentious was that! lol).

Finally, I sympathize with you, Richard, that a person that goes only for the junk books won't be able to discern anything, but anyone who calls him/herself a writer should make her best efforts to learn the craft, i.e. by attending to courses/seminars where these distinctions would be taught.

Mira said...


Did you see that?

Nathan said: Mira raised an interesting question.


Nathan said: Mira raised an interesting question!!!

I'm never going to wash my computer screen again.

Well, ever. I've never washed it, and now I never will.

Um, are we talking about something? I didn't get past the first line.

Oh. Being well read. Well, since I suspect everyone will answer the question 'yes', I'm going to say why I wondered about this.

But I want to get my thoughts together. Which given how thrilled I am by the first line of this post, may be awhile.

Cynthia said...

I think you must read regularly to be a good writer. It would be difficult to understand how craft and content shape reader response if you weren't a reader. And to suggest that any writer should be "above" influence is a highly debatable contention. Influence is not a bad thing when you combine your style with others you admire. It's not stealing or co-opting, but rather combining or conflating to create something new.

And to me, being well read means not only having read a lot of books, but also being able to make connections with those books to the outside world; how the works mirror or effect culture, history, people or an ideology.

Diane Mettler said...

I'm in the Faulkner camp.

Besides all the great reasons others here have given for reading widely, it also helps me get into my characters heads. Reading what they're passionate about (and not necessarily what excites me) opens up possibilities and creates new insights.

Carol said...

If we think back (not that far) to the earlier part of the 20th C, books and literary mags were the only real mechanism to absorb fiction. In today's 21st C environment we're bombarded with things to read from social media content, blogs, online mags, blah blah, etc. So, I'd say that 20th C writers were telling us to absorb fiction content from the only sources they had at the time. Today, we can choose to read novels (I do, often) or we can read many other types of fiction from a variety of sources.

That said, if you call yourself a writer and you have not engaged in the act of reading other peoples work I think you're trying to create something in a vacuum. Maybe there are writers out there who never read the work of others and are original and interesting. It is possible... but it's probably the exception, not the rule. We need to know where we came from, to some degree, to know where we'd like to go from here. James Joyce didn't produce Finnegan's Wake in a literary vacuum, nor was the Sound and the Fury a happy accident. These were deliberate left turns taken by these writers because they knew exactly where the main road was and how to drive. By understanding the fundamentals to a masterly degree you can - at a minimum - take this informed understanding and attempt to twist what you do to make it different. Without understanding what most people consider the "usual path" it's unlikely you'll consistently be able to create unique and compelling fiction.

Ducky said...

I absorbed grammar, vocabulary, style, and characterization (still working on plot and pacing) by reading voraciously, learning equally from writers who did it well and those who did it badly. (Granted, I enjoyed learning from the former much more. :-D) My writer's education was almost completely from reading. What I took away from creative writing classes was not necessarily writing technique, but rather being able to take a step back to critique my work or to push myself.

I want to be more widely-read. I need to branch out and read more of the classics. But I also intend to keep enjoying the "trash" of science fiction, because I've found writers who have mind-blowing ideas and can write well.

Natalie said...

I can't speak for everyone, but I know that when I'm constantly reading my writing gets better. I get immersed in words. It's like the difference between learning a language in a classroom and going to the actual country where they speak it and living there for a while.

Reading in your genre is like a study abroad program. You absorb the style, but that doesn't mean you lose your own voice. For me, I've been able to learn how my voice is different by reading in my genre.

But I also try to read outside my genre, because I think that helps me understand other "cultures" and that never hurts.

Research is also a big reading investment for me. Learning about non-fiction topics often boosts my creativity, strangely enough.

JJ said...

While I agree that it's important to be well-read to be a good writer, I don't think it's as important to be well-read within one's own genre. It IS important, of course, but I think reading outside will expand your horizons and possibly make connections as to what works narratively in general, rather than just mystery/sci-fi/fantasy/what-have-you.

JohnO said...

Jazz musicians talk about "learning the grammar," which where they learn, BY IMITATING, the solos of master musicians. Once they have their chops, then they learn to improvise.

Same thing in writing. If you want to play the same three chords in a garage band, great.

But if you want to get better, you have to expand your range. And the only way to do that is to read.

After all, how can you expect to
know what a satire is (or a mock-epic, or stream of consciousness, or an epistolary novel, or allusion, a framing device, symbolism, magical realism, allegory, epiphany ... etc.) until you read? How can you expect to write with any level of sophistication until you know what the forms are?

This applies to your genre as well. Just like a magazine editor needs to know if a story is the same old same old, or a fresh take on a subject, you have to know your genre well enough to see where your novel would fit, and why it's worth writing and then buying.

That would be really hard to do without knowing what else is out there.

P. Grier said...

It depends on how well you listened to great teachers. Sure, you need to read, but if you had great writing teachers and you utilized their talent, you are ahead of the game.

I see it this way, I spent my childhood reading. I read everything, even the ingredients on the back of the bathroom cleaner. I was taking in the world. Now, it is time to share my wisdom by writing.

It does amaze me, though, that some who call themselves educated, don't know of anything read earlier than, say, 1960.

Beth said...

Be well read and widely read. You have to be able to tell the difference between good and bad writing. You have to know what makes a good story.

It may help to be well read in one's genre, too, but I don't think that's a hard and fast requirement. It depends on the genre...and the writer.

Margaret Yang said...

People can actually choose not to read?

Kristi said...

If you're passionate about writing, you tend to be passionate about books in general - which includes the reading of them. Does anyone know of any successful writers who have said they don't like to read? And I'm not counting Kayne West.

I think it is SUPER important to read in the genre in which you hope to be published. As far as the undue influence part, when I'm in the process of writing a ms, I don't read in the same genre I'm writing. I'm currently writing an urban fantasy YA so the book I'm reading is adult fiction.

Don Killuminati said...

Being well read means knowing good writing from bad. I've been reading and writing complex books and stories my whole life. I still don't know what an adjective is. And I already aced all the college English courses. I know how to write because I read more often than I eat food.

reader said...

What IS well-read? That is a tricky question.

I write YA but get sick of reading it and instead read adult fiction to soothe my own soul. When I read YA, I feel like I'm not really "reading" it because I'm too busy trying to dissect it-- too much dialogue? Not enough? Too much backstory? Not enough? What sales did this have? Was it pushed by the pub to get those sales or was it word of mouth, etc...

But I think reading in general, regardless of the genre or category can only help ones writing.

However, I do feel really guilty sometimes, hearing all the YA books that other YA writers are reading, knowing full well I probalby won't read a fourth of them.

ryan field said...

I think you should be well read enough to know how to recognize bad writing. I personally would never even try to define what good writing is, because that's too subjective.

But I do think it's pretty simple to define bad writing, and reading helps you learn how to do this.

My own definition of being well read, for me alone, is reading an assortment of genres that I may or may not always love. But where I do always learn something.

Scott said...

Since everything is subjective, well read has many different meanings.

Personally . . . read, read, read!

As for the genre you're writing in - yes . . . to a certain extent. I read widely over many genres, rather than just the one I'm writing in. Good writing is good writing, and I think any writer can learn from reading both good and bad writing.


Liesl said...

Yes. Yes. Yes. Read good books, bad books. Articulate why the were good or bad. Unless you are a genius born with an amazing natural gift for writing, you have to be well-read to be a good writer. But I'll bet those few geniuses are still well-read.

Novice Writer Anonymous said...

Well-read is a very subjective judgment call to make. Some would say I'm not well-read though I consider myself to be a well-rounded person.

I think you do need to read a lot in the genre you write in, but at the same time I know a lot of people who can't read for pleasure while they're working on a project simply because they can't split editor-mode from reader-mode.

I personally can't read to consciously study the craft of writing. Even if it's a book I've read 100 times, I'll get lost in the writing and forget to study they whys and hows of it it all.

I've actually blogged about this a couple of times with some different takes on it. I think it's a very pertinent issue, especially the question of how versed must you be in and out of your chosen genre to be a good writer.

jjdebenedictis said...

Children who are read to by their parents grow up much more adept with language than those who aren't.

Why assume that process ever stops? Yes; read everything you can lay eyeballs on.

Sam Hranac said...

Reading is like crack to me. I’ll read because I have the opportunity. Do I gravitate toward the quality stuff? Quite often. Will I line up cereal boxes, then move on to the warnings printed on dry cleaner bags when I can’t find a book? Yes. Can I differentiate? I hope so.

I am, therefore I read. I learned how to read before kindergarten (on my own – this was before aggressive parenting) and I lost interest in school because they wanted me to do things that required less reading, like math.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I'm with Faulkner.

While I won't read anything similar to what I'm writing at the time, I do think that people should read their own genre. Why wouldn't you? If you aren't a fan of that genre, why are you writing in it? Color me confused.

I continue to agree with Faulkner in that one should read stuff of varying quality, because it's educational to see things done poorly, as long as you can recognize that it's not good writing.

People forget that writing is a craft, and the best way to learn a craft is to study with the best craftsman you can find, and to study fine examples of your craft.

CKHB said...

I don't know HOW well-read you need to be... and I don't know how much you need to read in your own genre... but I do think that staying away from writing because it will "influence" your own writing voice is poppycock.

If your voice can't handle a little exposure to other voices, then it's probably not strong enough to write a good novel yet. Exposure helps you find your voice, just like debate helps you clarify your own beliefs.

Cate said...

I don't think you can call yourself a writer if you don't read - period. But, as has been pointed out, are there writers like that? Not successful ones, I hope!

I heard a piece of advice once that a writer should never read bad writing, that there wasn't enough time to waste on crappy books/stories/poems, that one ought to devote herself only to the good stuff. I call baloney on that, personally. I think it's vital to read and recognize crap writing...and know how to avoid creating it yourself.

"Well read" is hard to quantify. If I haven't read the classics but I voraciously read contemporary works am I not well read? If someone throws out a quotation from a famous/classic/well-known/popular book and I don't instantly recognize it, have I failed as a reader? If I've read hundreds of romance novels but no Melville is that a strike against me?

I don't know. It's something to ponder. I'd like to think "well read" speaks more to a reader/writer's hunger for literature, a desire to be constantly consuming words, always learning and being inspired.

Wilkie said...

To build on JJ's comment (and Faulkner's implication about reading all types of material), it is interesting to consider the way that reading and absorbing stories in general can help one's writing, even if it is not in one's genre. For example, I have a friend who writes thrillers. His favorite reading material of the moment? Narrative nonfiction (and the news). Well-told, true stories. Although these are not fictional thrillers, how can one argue that a well-told narrative would not influence good writing? To that end, for writers in certain genres I would imagine that watching film is also influential, especially if you're learning about good plot construction. Yes, the medium is different, but it's still storytelling.

Terry said...

Seems I'm in the minority. I think if you can tell a story well, you don't need to read anyone else's. People have been telling stories for centuries in the oral tradition.

One of the best writers I know says he never reads fiction, only non-fiction. He grew up in John Gotti's neighborhood and is writing a coming-of-age mafia story. And it's brilliant. Strong voice, grabs you.

He does watch movies and TV, however. I think you can learn a lot about plot from those sources too. And growing up in Gotti's neighborhood was a plus, in its way, no doubt.

Cara Powers said...

@joelle You need an RSS feed so I can subscribe.

Lydia Sharp said...

Reading helps you determine what works and what doesn't. Yes, it can influence your voice/style/choice of techniques, but I think it's usually an improvement, i.e. you see something you like and apply it to your own work. I would think that is true of any art-type craft, whether it be painting, sculpting, photography, writing, etc.

I was an avid reader before I was a writer, and I think the majority of others will say the same. I read a variety of genres and also non-fiction, even though I mainly write sci-fi (for now, that is. who's to say what I'll be writing in the next ten or twenty years, though? could be anything). Limiting yourself is never beneficial, in my opinion, in either reading or writing.

Mira said...

Okay. Nathan, you really are awesome, opening this up for discussion.

So, in terms of the question, I tend toward 'no.' I hope I'm right, because I am not well read, and I don't intend to become well read. I read alot, but it's not especially well-written. I don't read literary fiction for the most part, nor the classics, nor the newest thing. Right now, I'm re-reading Winnie-the-pooh. That's my level.

Not that I won't benefit from reading AA Milne. I do think that reading good writing can help with the craft. I've learned from reading Nathan's posts, for example. But, like P. Grier said, a good teacher can be just as good - I think better actually.

A good teacher can pinpoint things. Reading, you're taking things in haphazardly.

So, although I agree that an apprentice benefits from a teacher to help them refine their craft, I don't think that teacher needs to be other books.

It may be better if it's not.

From books - you could learn the wrong things. You could become so indoctrinated in the way things are 'done' that you lose your original voice. You could become discouraged because you'll never write as good as 'that', not realizing that your voice is different, not inferior. You could copy other authors who do it wrong.

So, I think where I end up is that judicious reading, guided by a teacher, would be a much better way to learn the craft than just reading everything you can get your hands on.

At least for me.

Cellulite Analyst said...

I think being well read comes from a number of other traits that are important in writing: curiosity about the world, a desire to connect with people ...the ability to sit in one spot for hours on end, interacting with nothing but words on a page.

Cheryl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda Godfrey said...

What Faulkner said.

And you'd be crazy not to read in your own genre. If you don't love it enough that you MUST read it, why are you trying to write it?

My one caveat: I will read anything that interests me as long as it is well-written. Life is too short to read bad writing.

Anonymous said...

When I was a child I was ill for long periods of time and learned to love books. I have read as much as I can for many years. At some point I came to the conclusion that I could write better then many of the writers that I was reading.

What I have learned from this is a greater respect for the writers of what I considered trash. I still think that I can write better then some of the authors that I read but I still read them, and learn from them.

So I suppose that the answer to the question asked is, reading even junk, can’t hurt. The other conclusion I have came to is that I will continue to write stories as long as I have stories to tell. I am not an Author just a story teller and reader.

Lydia Sharp said...

Example of how reading has helped my writing (because it's relevant to this and an earlier post of Nathan's):

I never truly understood what is meant by "showing vs. telling" until I read (several) published novels while focusing on that specific aspect of the writing. People had been trying to teach me the concept prior, nearly beating it into me, and I actually thought I'd understood it...but no, I really, really, really, hadn't yet. That came later, after reading tons and tons of stuff, and then re-reading it all and picking it apart.

And that is just one thing. There are so many others.

Cheryl said...

In college, I was told that I don't need to be well read to be able to write. That is probably the number one reason the English Lit students looked down upon me and my Journalism compadres.

Instead, we were told we need to understand a broad area of subjects. I studied classical, anglophone and women's literature. But I also studied anthropology of Micronesia, crime and deviance, philosophy of western religions and sports in America.

I've met many a person who has read everything from Dostoyevsky to Joyce, Hemingway to Rushdie, and yet, they cannot write. Yes, they know grammar and structure and can analyze the crap out of D.H. Lawrence. But when push comes to shove, they can't write an interesting story if their life depended upon it.

A good understanding of the world and people around you is what helps one to be a good writer. Writers must be thirsty for all kinds of knowledge and absorb it like a sponge. Whether that knowledge is gained from 1200 pages of "War and Peace", an article from Vanity Fair or even an internet blog, is irrelevant.

Robena Grant said...

I love being a part of a bookclub with diverse members all with very different ideas of what makes a good story.

We read everything from genre fiction to classics and analyze them. The discussions can only make me a better writer because they make me think about writing and storytelling, what works and what doesn't.

Rooty Too, mRoo, and other nom de plumes said...

I read first because I am drawn to a story.

I think loving stories helps me to have a feel for how they need to build and take me away with them, move me, etc. Reading has also developed a love of language in me.

I think my own stories stem from what comes up in me that is different or my own somehow (even if, as Nathan pointed out, it has been done before).

But once I started writing, I started re-reading stories differently. I still read for the story first.But then I read for the style, the technique, the skill too.

I am always amazed and impressed when, even then, the technique, the skill, and even the faults of the writing fall away and the story STILL takes me away, again.

Mira said...

Oh, I have one more thing to say.

I believe there are two important things that create a writer:

a. Natural talent to express yourself through words.
b. Having something to say; a need to express something.

Everything else is gravy.

And you get something to say not by reading alot or taking in the world around you or having wide experiences or studying lots of subjects.

That's not how you get something to say. You get something to say by going through difficult times in your life, or possibly through joyous times in your life. The creative urge is fueled by strong emotion.

It also really helps to spend alot of time alone.

Becoming a writer is about getting access to a clear channel for expression. Time alone gives you access to that channel, and strong emotion sweeps the channel clear of debris and let's your true voice come out.

Christina Adams said...

I agree that a writer should read and read often. But I am not sure when someone could be classified as well-read. I try to read 100 books a year in the genre and age group I write and I am always amazed by how many books, and authors, I have never heard of.

Paul Äertker said...

I disagree.
You don't have to be well-read in order to write well. Sure, reading helps most people write better. But not all. Consumption of writing (good or bad) doesn’t make a writer.
A writer strings words together. In reference to your analogy, a carpenter needs to know how to put wood together. Working for a master carpenter usually helps, but an apprenticeship is not necessary to building fine furniture. An MBA is not required to run a business. An MFA doesn't always produce a good novel.
Writing (or any craft, sport, or pursuit) can be improved by doing, watching, listening, and practicing.

Bane of Anubis said...

I think it depends on the genre -- if you're writing in a cookie-cutter one (e.g., cozies), it's definitely more important, but if you're not, I'm a bit less convinced than most everyone else.

To use a sports analogy, I think reading's a bit like film study. In the beginning, you've got to watch games to learn how to play (reading), and, hopefully, you're watching the best players (IYO) and emulating them.

Once you've learned the game, you need to practice it (writing). You can definitely get to a high level without any further film study.

Of course, without film study, you won't understand your opponents as well (market trends), and, thus, to be the best, you need to continue the film study.

However, given the wealth of information out there about current players and their habits, film study isn't as crucial as it used to be.

One really important thing I've learned from film study: no matter how much I watch MJ, I'll never fly.

Scott said...

I think reading is part of the job description of being a writer. When I worked as a news reporter, I read every newspaper I could get my hands on. I saw what worked and what didn't work by reading other reporters' stuff.

Honestly, I know I'm not well-read enough at this point. But I'm also finding myself becoming more of a fiction snob. I've started two or three audiobook recently and not finished them because I couldn't stand the writing or it just didn't grab me.

I know you're not supposed to gripe about published authors. But I really have to take just one little jab at Nicholas Sparks. I haven't read him before, but my wife really likes him and thus we have most of his books around the house. She also had an audio version of The Lucky One. Oh, my. Not that the writing was bad, but it's just so syrupy and predicatable. Are all of his stories like that? He definitely has strengths as a writer, but I wondered as I was listening, if that MS was just another in the slush pile, would it even get noticed?

Ink said...

Interesting... it seems to hinge so much on that definition of well read. Lots of yeses, and even the ones who answered no seem to be operating under a certain definitional belief... and their no might actually be a yes in the eyes of someone with a broader or looser definition of the term.

I mean, A.A.Milne should be part of any definition of well read, in my opinion. :) Ah, the sarcasm of Eeyore... good stuff, there.

susiej said...

Francine Prose wrote a wonderful book, How to Read Like a Writer. It was not only interesting but also just an enjoyable read.

Martha Ramirez said...

I have nominated you for the Kreative Blogger Award:)

Anonymous said...


I love the way you think, and I totally agree. I also feel it's possible to lose your own voice by too much outside influence.


Matilda McCloud said...

I think well-read means reading LOTS of good writing (from good commercial fiction to literary fiction etc). I don't find it productive to read only my own writing--I need to take breaks to read good books. It's also something of a reality check to remind me I have a ways to go. My experience as a reader helps me learn instinctively such things as pacing, tension, what's been done before, what's cliched etc. So I read, read, read all the time (I take advantage of interlibrary loan so I don't go broke).

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I also feel we as writers need to separate our selves from the writer in us when we read. As writers we often become too critical of the craft and miss the story.


stephanie said...

Beth expressed my thoughts exactly (and with far more brevity than I could manage).

Faulkner's ability to breakdown writing to the most elemental was sublime.

~Aimee States said...

Two years of writing, and I finally learned to READ in a different way. Yes, it has made all the difference.

Veronica Barton-Dean said...

We must be on the same wave length as twice in the last couple of posts we talked about similar things. I'm a firm believer in reading to further develop my craft. However, I don't do it while I'm working on my first draft. A lot of times I get so caught up in someone else's story that I don't want it to come across in mine subconsciously. Reading is as much of my creative practice as my writing exercises.

Thanks for yesterday's blog, it made Thomas' and I both smile.

Debra Moolenaar said...

I believe writers must read what they love for how can they write what they love if they've not articulated what it is that fires their passion?

Melissa Petreshock said...

I don't know that I consider myself to be highly well-read, but I do read a lot. In fact, everyone at the library knows me since I'm in so often. However, I wouldn't say I'm so much well-read in the classics as I am more contemporary fiction that catches my eye or someone recommends to me.

After reading your blog today, I decided to repost some of your commentary and use it in my blog post for the day. I hope you don't mind.

Mira said...

Thanks Jo. Nice to see you again. And I agree with your points. :)

Lisa Dez said...


Nuff said.

SammyStewart said...

You need to be well read as a writer and well-defined as a person. The threat of having your voice swallowed up in the voices of other authors will not be a problem if you develop who you are as an individual. Personal voice, when truly present, can't be hidden or inadvertently overwhelmed, I think. Emily Dickenson is always, unequivocably, Emily Dickenson.

Kat Harris said...

I used to believe a person could be a good writer without reading.

It's funny how quickly my beliefs changed when I started picking up more and more books, comparing my writing to what had been published, and realizing the difference.

When I started reading a lot, my writing improved by leaps and bounds.

So, I ask, "If it's going to improve your writing, (and there's always room for improvement) why would you not want to read everything you can get your hands on?"

An unwillingness to be well-read is simply laziness, IMHO.

Ken Hannahs said...

I think that if you intend to be a well-respected author, knowing where your work fits into the overall tapestry that is the printed word is important.

Reading the classics is, to me, incredibly important. Here is a quick list of books that I think anyone who is writing needs to have read and understand in some sort of faculty:




*Another source of mythology (Hesoid's Theogony is a good source)

*Basic readings on other religious traditions (Summa Theologica is invaluable, albeit unfinished)

*Philosophies of Aristotle, Plato, Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant... Nietzsche and Kierkgaard as well if you're feeling particularly uppity.

That should get you up to the 21st century (in a crash course... there's other great stuff out there) and then you can finally start reading literature that expounds on these philosophies.

Read a little from all over the place... don't just read your specific genre, or you will be just like everyone else. Like a good chef, spice up your work with something exotic. Throw in your knowledge of Russian literature with a trashy love novel and put it on a bed of St. Augustine's Confessions. After those thousands and thousands of books, don't be afraid to approach literature as genreless.

clindsay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Author Guy said...

The most important thing is to pay attention to your life and the things in it. This is the material out of which a story is built. Stories are those experiences, converted into words. Reading will help in that a story (if it's done well) will have someone else's experiences already converted and this will show a writer how to do it. Maybe. Being well-read in his own genre is helpful because it will show a writer how a particular experience was rendered in the past so he doesn't do it that way in the future. What a waste it would be for a Tolkien-esque genius to rewrite LOTR simply because he'd never read LOTR before.

b.mousli said...

I teach in an MFA program, and my advice to my students is "read, read, read". I teach literature, but beyond reading and analyzing, I have them write short pieces each week, creative one, with prompts that are in sync with the reading...
Also, I am a biographer, and nothing more rewarding to get to know the writer I am writing on than exploring his or her library, and reading these books. It always takes me further in that person's mind than any other explorations, any diary, or letters...

clindsay said...

One word: YES.

And you should be well-read in your genre of choice as well. If you write literary fiction, you'd better be reading a lot of it.

If you want to write YA, you'd better eat, sleep and breathe YA.

Because ya know what? I can tell from your query when you haven't read widely enough in your genre.

Ink said...


I'm not sure about the analogy. I think not reading would be like playing blind. Never watching film, never watching a game, never watching what your teammates or opponents are doing. Just dribbling and shooting on your own. And even the best way to learn that is to see examples of how it's done. But good ball players, for example, are absorbing the game all the time. A crossover, a stutter step, a hesitation fake, a jab step, a fall away, a leaner... I mean, you bet Jordan was paying attention. He wasn't giving up an inch. He was watching to see what worked and what didn't, and then he'd take advantage of it.

So... I think you generally need to read a lot to learn to write (though there's usually at least one exception to every rule). Once you can write... how much is needed then? I'm not sure. You could probably get by with less, but it's also more likely a writer would stagnate if they stopped. And reading is part of self-improvement as a writer. Not the only part, but usually a significant one. I'm guessing Jordan didn't stop trying to learn the game, didn't stop looking for new techniques. Once it got a little harder to jump and age started catching up... well, suddenly that little post up and fade away was unstoppable. That comes from experience as much as instinct, and that means absorption of the game.

Now, what does that reading entail? I think that's pretty open for interpretation. Audiobooks, genre, literary, classics, middle grade, YA... I think everyone's going to find their own path (hopefully) that supports their writing. Writing out of a vacuum, however, would be very difficult indeed.

gerrilynn said...

Absolutely need to be well read, no matter if it's good or bad or indifferent. That way, you'll know what works, what doesn't, and what ends up as meh.

Two proverbs spring to mind: There is nothing new under the sun, and Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It's ok to be influenced by other writers' voices. It's not ok to copy the voices right down to the signature phrases, though. Use their voices to find your own.

Otherwise, Faulkner said it best. :)

Pepper Smith said...

I think reading is essential, not only for learning the craft, but for keeping up to date on your own genre, and for keeping the creative well from going dry. When I don't read, I eventually stop writing.

As for how well/widely read you have to be, I guess that really depends on the needs of the person. I've read very few of the classics. There are types of literature that I have absolutely no interest in. I've read my fair share of trash, but I've come to the point where I will stop reading a book that's poorly written because I don't have the time anymore to spend on it.

Which brings up another point--it's easy to let the reading take over at the expense of the writing. The reading is good, but not if it's an excuse not to write.

Anonymous said...

Unlike most professions, writers are fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from both our contemporaries and from those who have preceded us. Whether we are learning what we should do, or we are learning what we should never do, reading expands our understanding of technique, style and most importantly, execution.

Reading immerses us into an author's work where, as readers, we may first enjoy experiencing their story, and then we may change our perspective and examine how the author constructed the finished product.

Mira - I have always respected your honesty and bravery - especially when you are one of the lone voices speaking out in dissention of the general opinion. And for reasons that I stated in my post yesterday, I can understand why new writers might not want to be influenced by others when they are searching for their own voice.

AM said...

Unlike most professions, writers are fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from both our contemporaries and from those who have preceded us. Whether we are learning what we should do, or we are learning what we should never do, reading expands our understanding of technique, style and most importantly, execution.

Reading immerses us into an author's work where, as readers, we may first enjoy experiencing their story, and then we may change our perspective and examine how the author constructed the finished product.

Mira - I have always respected your honesty and bravery - especially when you are one of the lone voices speaking out in dissention of the general opinion. And for reasons that I stated in my post yesterday, I can understand why new writers might not want to be influenced by others when they are searching for their own voice.

Anonymous said...

Kat & Sammy,

I have to disagree. I adore reading, and everything else gets put aside while I read. Never have I though of reading as work.
It's possible that our voice doesn't change because of reading other author's work, but I do think by reading other books we lose our fresh approach.
I've read hundreds of books, but while working on my own MS I do try to avoid it. I don't want my MS flavored by someone else's ideas.

Greerio said...

How can you learn how to write except by reading? I consider writing to be improvisational reading. I think copying voice is very important until you know how to cultivate one on your own. It's a great exercise to copy another author's voice deliberately. Then, you can get a knack for how to weild that aspect of craft.
If you don't read widely, how can you know what are you doing at all? And if you don't read books that are like your own, how can you figure out how other authors handled the same subject, and how your book differs?

Ink said...


I agree with your two points... but often natural talent isn't enough. My third thing would be experience and knowledge, and those usually comes from reading and writing. Talent is simple... you have it or you don't. Or, more accurately, everyone appears somewhere on a very large sliding scale. We have what we have. But lots of people with things to say will waste their talent. Craft can be hard. I've met too many writers who were simply unwilling to put in the hours reading, writing and learning, and because of this they never came close to reaching their potential.

It's hard to write something great if you've never read something great - and the great, here, is something subjective and personal. And Milne qualifies. :)

Anonymous said...

anon Tomas here ... though I don't think about being "well-read" (a phrase that suggests one must be an Oxford don or have 'read' at Cambridge) per se, I do read, & I read to write.

I don't see how one can write, on an ongoing basis and not read, constantly. I read for voice, sentence structure (ah, so that's how they did that), & other reasons I can't recall right now.

So, reading is a given.

But what's not interesting is what I read compared to someone else. I'm not particularly interested in what you're reading unless it's useful to me and what resonates / is useful for me maybe completely useless to you.

The New Yorker ran a Louis Menand's "Show or Tell" in the June 8, 2009 issue & addressed graduate writing programs & their use to writers. What I found most interesting about the article was a quote suggesting the most useful element of those programs is teaching writer-aspirants how to use what they read for their writing.

I find blogs & the internet distracting reading. They provoke reactive thoughts more than meditative ones. Maybe it's the electricity.

Dave Todaro said...

I used to think that reading other authors would distort my voice, but I was wrong. I can tell it makes a positive impact in my writing. It does help me to find my voice more distinctly. And it should help me communicate what my work is comparable to, how it differs, and why folks like Nathan should pay attention!

My bigger problem/question is "Do you need to learn the conventions of your genre and stick to them?" I'm told that if you haven't published, it's hard to break genre rules or to write something that's cross-genre. What do you all think<

a kelly said...

I resent the time I've spent reading trash. My time for reading and writing is limited so I choose carefully and will bail on a book at the first sign of a stinker. I can't read too much of any genre because it influences my writing. So I choose carefully and try to make more time for writing than reading.
The background story is that I spent my childhood immersed at the library reading everything. So I think I did the groundwork before I began writing.

Terry said...

So true Mira. The creative urge is fueled by strong emotion.

I find the people who annoy me the most are often the ones who inspire me to write the most.

Anonymous said...

Is this kind of like which came first the chicken or the egg? There may not be any originals anymore, but once upon a time there were.

Laurel said...

Several people mentioned losing your voice through reading. I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I'm a natural mimic and I do find my prose picks up qualities of what I've been reading recently.

That being said, I also find that when I really know the character, fully developed with motivations and weaknesses, that voice overpowers everything else. I'll write a bit of dialogue and think, "She would never say that." It sticks out when I violate the voice of the POV. It's easy to spot.

If reading waters down your voice, try getting to know your characters a little better and see if that helps. The more real they are the harder it is to impose someone else's voice on them.

Anonymous said...

I think it's hard to be a writer without being "well-read." Falling in love with characters and their life stories, which you experience by reading, is what is most fulfilling about writing (in my opinion, anyway).

Firefly said...

I've been reading all my life. I've been writing only a short time. What I'd like to know from all you well-read people out there is -- Do writers read differently than 'civilians'?

Lisa said...

YES! And why wouldn't you want to read if you want to be a writer? You should WANT to read everything you can, in my humble, very non-published opinion.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if this is repetitious; I can't wade through all 90 comments before leaving my own. I think it is most important for writers to learn to read critically. Aside from absorbing the story, a part of your brain must be chewing through what is working, what isn't, why did the author choose that word, is this theme developed properly, what would I do differently...

So, yes, be well-read, but be sure to think about the mechanics of what you are reading as well.

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katy Cooper said...

I don't know that I'm well-read; I do know I've read widely. I also know that I have to read--not writing makes me cranky, but not reading makes me crazy.

I think my reading--the hours spent doing it, the variety of things read--has made me a stronger writer. I've written in two genres because that's where my imagination's gone, and I think it's gone to those places because I've read them. (That's not the only reason; I read a fair amount of mystery, but have zero desire to write one.)

But I'm not sure you have read a lot to be a good writer.

I think it's important to read outside one's genre, partly to see how things are done in other genres, and partly to keep yourself fresh.

Ink said...


I think writers (often, but not always) read with more of an awareness of how something is written than non-writers, though the extent of that awareness will vary greatly amidst writers (and, perhaps, from moment to moment for each of those writers). But often writers are more conscious of the parts... we see the trees as well as the forest. We see the process of the illusory trick as well as the effect. Sometimes understanding Houdini's technique is as astounding as the appearance of magic itself. If you're lucky you can see both...

Brian "Arkle" Webber said...

I agree completely. I've noticed myself that in the months where I don't get a lot of reading done, I don't get much writing done.

Anja said...

I'm with Mira. I don't think you have to read, read, read, read. I think you have to read.

As a kid and teenager, I read a lot. Later at Uni, there was barely time to read anything other than the required reading. Since then, I struggle to read 12 novels a year. I read even less since I started writing. It's like being adolescent again: put a novel in my hand, I feel guilty that I'm not doing my homework, err, I mean that I'm not writing.

And I simply can't read badly written prose, no matter how great the plot. And I'm very picky. The prose has to be really great. (My favorite authors of all times are Thomas Mann and J.R.R. Tolkien.) And the characters have to be great. And I want to be hooked on page one. So I have a really hard time picking my next read.

What I don't understand: why would anyone want to read bad prose to study how NOT to write? I don't want to risk being influenced by writing I don't like. I think -- in terms of improving my writing skills -- I can get more out of rereading the novels I do like. And there are quicker ways of researching what has been done before in your genre than reading all those novels yourself ;o)



CKHB said...

ACK! I'm going to see James Ellroy read tonight, and I just looked up his Wikipedia entry, and apparently he "never reads books by other authors, aside from Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field, for fear that they might influence his own."

Can that be POSSIBLE? Surely not. It must just be part of his public persona to claim such a thing, right? RIGHT?

lotusgirl said...

I think you have to read a lot. The good, the bad, and the ugly but especially the great. I can't tell you how much I've learned from reading bad writing. It can really show you what not to do.

You have to read in your genre to know what's been done, but you don't have to read everything. You'd never get any writing done if you did.

I love Natalie's comparison with learning a foreign language.

Kate said...

I believe it is very important. If people are lazy they can read books about how to write and learn the rules of story telling that way. But to really understand how a story fits together, people need to read actual stories. I am 30 years old, and estimate I have probably read about 3,000 books in my life. And I don't think I'm well-read enough.

I have read a great deal in the genre that I write, and find it odd to think that someone would chose to write in a genre that they don't enjoy reading. I'm less worried about being influenced by other writers than learning what other have done. How can a writer know that they are writing something that will add to the literary world, if they don't know what is already in that world?

Mira said...

I'm not going to post too much more because I can tend to do overpost - but I wanted to respond.

AM - thank you. I always like your comments too! :)

Terry - that's funny, and so true.

Ink - I think you do have a point. I read tons of stuff in college that I would never have chosen to read, and it did expand my thinking.

But mainly I'm saying there's a difference between the craft of writing and the heart of writing. And the heart of writing is what is important. It doesn't matter how much you study the craft or read other people's writings; the true writing that you do comes from deep inside you. It's not placed inside you from the outside.

Truly, the best way to learn to write is to write, and get feedback on the writing. I've become a much better writer in the 9 months I've been on Nathan's blog. Part of that is reading Nathan's and other posts, but mostly it's just from trying to distill my thoughts on a daily basis, and noticing how well my thoughts are communicated.

And I read Milne last night before I went to sleep. Savored every word. Lovely.

Ink said...


I agree with you... sort of. The heart of writing is hugely important. The creative urge, the drive to communicate something... this is the vital life spark of writing. But doing it well requires craft. Having this glowing thing inside you is wonderful... but if you want other people to share in the wonderful glowing thing you have to be able to communicate it properly, and that requires craft. So, yeah, the heart comes first... but it won't be going anywhere fast without some craft to give it legs. You need the heart to write... but you need the craft to write well.

JEM said...

Being well read in your genre is like speaking the English language - you should really know the rules before you break them. If you are a YA author, for instance, and someone picks up your book in the store they're going to expect a certain reading level, protagonist age, plot roll out, etc. Yes, there will be a range, but genres exist for a reason. If you completely break from that it may upset the reader. However, if you take little unexpected breaks from time to time it keeps the story/genre interesting and alive.

Thermocline said...

It is already too late.

We have already been influenced by what we've been reading before we ever started worrying about whether reading would influence our voice. Of course it does. Just like how my musical tastes have been shaped by what I've listened to in the past or my thoughts about politics about shaped by country I grew up in.

A writer's voice comes out of the influences of the past. Maybe some of the stronger ones aren't even from other books. A Sci-Fi writer might have been most impacted by a slew of movies consumed while growing up.

My point is that there is so many aspects of our lives that shape us as people (and writers) that the fear of our voices being influenced by what we read may be overblown.

Audrianna said...

I think that you have to read to know how to write in a way that is accepted during these times. Even classics all indicate what writing looks like today.

I personally read anything and everything, though I'm more interested in young adult at the moment (which would makes sense, since I am a young adult).

Christina said...

RE: classics

Back to my sports analogy -- um, a lot of 'classic' writing wouldn't fly today, IMO -- in some ways, reading those to learn would be like learning to shoot underhand free throws... sure, if you're Rick Barry-esque, it doesn't matter (and might actually be cool), but if you're an average 75% FT shooter, people would probably look at you funny.

Susan Quinn said...

Being well read means immersing yourself in the language in every form - from your genre to the newspaper.

I also think it's necessary, but not sufficient, to be well read to become a good writer.

Speaking of reading well, OUTLIERS (Malcolm Galdwell) posits that 10,000 hours are required to achieve mastery in an area. So, I have to wonder if this could apply to writing.

Neglect, for the moment, whether you have to achieve mastery to get published.

Assuming you start with some modicum of talent, would the 10,000 hours of dedicated effort include all that reading you did over the years, accumulating the collective use of the language in storytelling, OR is it 10,000 hours of writing, and writing alone? My suspicion is that it is the accumulated effort you put into your writing, which includes reading.

Tiger didn't just putt since he was three. He golfed a tremendous amount, read about golfing, studied golfing, talked about golfing, and pretty much immersed himself in the endeavour.

The 10,000 hour number might also be related to why many authors have a novel (or three) in a drawer before they produce one that is publishable.

1000 hours = 1 novel ? (Word math!)

Any thoughts? How many hours of writing before you felt you reached "publishable quality"?

Bane of Anubis said...

Whoops - Christina = Bane (that's what happens when you login to your wife's account and forget to change :)

Amy said...

I read a ton, and I agree that one shouldn't be absorbed only in their genre. For work I read septic tank design manuals and electrician's design suggestions, then I throw in all those night time stories to baby and all kinds of non fiction as well as fiction, travel writing (usually seems to be fictional anyway), and just the plain old newspaper.
Reading is about words...without seeming them splashed around you can't be sure how to use them.

Susan Quinn said...

OOps - Malcolm GLADWELL. Sorry, Malcolm.

Karen said...

I find it incredibly arrogant when a "writer" is not also a "reader."

Aside from the fact that reading helps us to learn the craft (I've learned a lot more from reading both good and bad books than from any writing class), I can't help wondering why such a person would expect anyone to read their work if they don't bother to read what others have written.

Not every book we read will (or should) be a masterpiece. It helps to read the bad stuff just as much as it does to read the good. I love A Tale of Two Cities and I hate Twilight, but the demographic I'm writing for falls more into the Twilight category, so it's good to know what is already out there and what the wide audience enjoys. Sometimes it'll remain a mystery as to why, but it's still good to know.

AM said...


Personally, I have learned that I can decide to approach a book as either a reader or a writer. I now try to first enjoy a book as a reader, and then more times than not, I do reexamine the book as a writer.

I have also come to believe that when a book (fiction or nonfiction) really resonates with me, it is not so much due to the uniqueness of the story that the author told – but how they told (or as ink said, crafted) the story.

However, if I first read a novel as a writer, I rob myself of the magic (or as Myra suggested, the heart) of the book because I am focused on how the novel is constructed, and seeing the ropes and mortar that were used to build the story detracts from the story itself.

I want both the heart and the body.

Suzanne said...

I believe it's important to read widely, across genres, non-fiction, periodicals, etc. In other words, not only to be a student of language and various styles of writing, but also to be a student of the world so that you bring a fresh perspective to the page.

Annalee said...

I've read a few interviews with writers who boast that they "don't read," and frankly, if I've read any of their stuff, I've never, ever been surprised. It always shows, and not in a good way.

People have already touched on some pretty major challenges facing writers who aren't readers: how do you master a craft you won't study; how do you keep up with what's going on in your field; how do you know you're not re-inventing the wheel, etc.

Another challenge I see is this: at our best, writers are keen observers. Of people, places, cultures--everything. Even (or perhaps especially) fiction writers. When someone doesn't read, they're missing out on a great opportunity to observe.

Personally, I write SF and Fantasy (and YA SF and Fantasy), but I'll read pretty much anything. I certainly try to stay current with what's going on in my genre, but I also read a heck of a lot of non-fiction, mainstream fiction, some mystery, some historical stuff, classics--whatever looks interesting at the moment. I don't just do it because I think it will help my writing, but that does seem to be a nice side-effect.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I've always read. I always will read. It's part of what makes life enjoyable, interesting, thought-provoking. Writing comes naturally to me, perhaps because reading always did.

terryd said...

Put another way: Why would a writer want to remain ignorant?

Vacuum Queen said...

For years I had people tell me that I "should write that down!" Apparently I can tell a decent story. I spent time in college giving motivational speeches to high school students and many would come up to me and tell me how much they loved what I said and how hard they laughed, etc. I even had a comedian tell me I should probably make a decent comedienne someday. And sometimes when I send an email, I get a reply telling me they're saving that email because it was so hilarious or that it rang true with them. From email.

Hmmmm...but I don't feel like I write all that well. When you're writing for publication, all sorts of other issues come into play. Grammar (which I can fix if needed, I teach writing), plotting, characterization, irony, action, blah blah blah. I think you need to read other books in order to understand how a good story should flow.

Do you need to read only classics? I don't think so. Perhaps you do need to read within your style, though.

Firefly said...

AM and Ink -- thanks for responding to my question. I am finding that I have a tendency to read differently now -- but if I stop and analyze too much I do lose the magic!

Ashley said...

I've found the more I read, the better writer I become. So I say, yes, you *should* be well-read if you want to be a good writer.

Michael Pickett said...

Yes. Be well-read. What does well-read mean? I'm not sure. You can never come to a point where you say, "Now that I've read all of the books are even remotely similar to my idea, I can start writing." I think you just have to be reading all the time. At the same time, though, I went through a period where I was reading first, and then writing if I had time after I read. I had to shake myself and say, "You're a writer first. No one is ever going to pay you to read." And yes, I think you should read everything. I think a true writer can gain something from everything he reads. A reader shouldn't put up with a crappy book. If it's not entertaining them, they aren't getting anything out of it. They should move on. A writer though, can learn to recognize why they aren't engaged in a book. That way, they can catch those mistakes in their own work. In conclusion: read, read, read, but only after you've set time aside to write, write, write.

Robert McGuire said...

We should be well-read enough to understand HOW a given piece of writing achieves the effects that it does, good, bad or otherwise. (That is, we should "Read Like A Writer" to use the title of a recent Francine Prose book.) We should preferably arrive at this understanding consciously, though I'm sure some portion of it for most writers and all of it for some writers gets absorbed totally unconsciously. Either way, it requires a ton of reading.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the same can be asked of, say, a painter; did the great masters seek out other works to increase the level of their craft?

I don't know if writers need to read voraciously; how many people who are passionate readers choose to write?

It's possible to be a reader who never authors a word. Can you be a writer whose reading is while not nil, doesn't compare to the amount written?

I heard (maybe I even read it) that during one's day, Stephen King recommends four hours of writing, four hours of reading. I don't subscribe to that ratio, not even close. I read widely when younger, now over forty I write constantly, read when it strikes me.

I have no idea what this means in the grand scheme of things. If I'm ever in a position of my opinion being widely sought, I will expound upon this theory in detail, just for the sake of it.

If I languish in oblivion, the point will be proven otherwise.

Rick Daley said...

I'm going out on a limb:


Let me explain. First off, I read FREAKONOMICS recently, and if you have also read that then you will quickly grasp the reasoning behind my response. I'm not saying I'm right, I'm just using a similar logic. And without empirical data. So please bear with me...

It's about cause and effect. I do not think being well read will cause you to be a good writer. I do think good writers are well-read by nature.

For example, I know many people who are avid listeners of music. (Audiophiles, they call themselves, but I think that sounds creepy.) That does not cause them to be composers, though.

I also know many people who are avid listeners and can play many instruments and fluently sight-read what's in front of them, or learn a song by ear from the radio, but can't write original material.

The composers I know also listen to a lot of music.

I'm pretty sure the good writers I know are all well read (unfortunately we've never had a formal survey). I think that being well-read is a by-product of their innate talent as writers, i.e. it's the talent that drives their desire to read.

Other people that are well-read but are not good writers have different incentives for reading.

AmyB said...

Not only do I think it's important to be well read, I think writers need to focus especially on reading NEW books--not stuff that's 30-50 years old. I've found that writers who refuse to read new authors, complaining that nobody writes anything good anymore, write tired, old-fashioned stuff that nobody buys anymore. (Because the people who might actually like that stuff are all re-reading their old books...)

A name will be forthcoming. said...

I can't imagine wanting to write if you're not well read. I can't imagine wanting to tell a story if you can't determine if the story is told well. I can't imagine putting oneself through the hell that most of us go through to write if you have no measuring sticks.
I write because I love to read. I write because I have read broadly in nearly every subject and genre I can get my hands on. I write because I'm addicted to words and the images they evoke in my mind. I write because I aspire to achieve what the great authors I've read have and because I know I can do better than the bad authors I have read.
So, yeah. I agree with Faulkner. Read everything.

James said...

I think a writer needs to be extremely well read. Writing is partially about putting your butt in the chair and writing, but it's also about putting your butt in the chair and reading. There is so much to be learned by watching it done right.

I'm reminded of the scene in Hardball (with Keanu Reeves) where he takes the kids to a Major League Baseball game. His whole reasoning was to do something nice for them, but to also inspire them. The looks on their faces as they watched the game were priceless and you knew that the inspiration they carried from that game stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Reading is the same thing to a writer. There's nothing like walking into a bookstore and feeling the spines of a fresh, new book. There's nothing like bringing it home and smelling the new pages as you crack it open for the first time. And nothing, absolutely nothing, can compare to the inspiration that comes from reading a powerfully written book.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I think it's a matter of likelihood. Reading a wide variety of fiction provides guidance in how to put stories together, and makes it much more likely that you'll be successful in any given writing attempt. A person could be a literary genius without ever having read a novel -- just don't bet the farm on that.

Mary said...

Surely it’s essential for a writer to read, both inside and outside their genre. (I write the genre I most love to read.)

And we choose our influences. I don’t believe we catch them like colds. :)

Ink said...


I'm gonna have to disagree with that - even though I read Freakonomics. :)

All those good writers were avid readers before they were writers. You don't want to be a writer without having read something. You read something and say "I want to do this."

And, no, reading a lot will not cause you to be a good reader, but that's not because reading isn't (generally) necessary, but because there are many other factors involved. Creative drive, discipline, talent, etc. You need some of that knowledge, but you need a lot more, too. I'm guessing Malcolm Gladwell would say you need that 10,000 hours of practice, and it also helps to have the opportunity, the support, necessary to apply yourself.

So... pure cause and effect, no. But I'm guessing a study would show a pretty incredible correlation between writing success and reading, and that sort of correlation would strongly suggest that reading is at least one of the causal factors in producing good writing.

And Freakonomics really was good. That whole abortion/crime thing was interesting and spooky...

Ink said...

And I seem to be disagreeing with all my friends today. Must be something in the water...

Rhonda said...

I would say that if being well-read simply means having read a bunch of classics, then no, you don't need to be well read to be a (published)writer. However, I do think you need to read a lot, and you need to read a mix of what has been and what currently is being published.

Joseph L. Selby said...

Not sure if you need to be well-read, but you need to read well. Engage the book, question why the author chose a particular motivation, a particular action, a particular word in that instance. Identify what you think works. Identify what you think doesn't work. Assimilate. Understand. Reading doesn't do you much good if you're reading every fifth word and you're not asking yourself why the book is the way it is. You'll just end up repeating the same thing over and over again.

Anonymous said...

They say you have a half million bad words to write before you get to the good ones. If that's true, then I would think you have to read ten million words before you can write good ones.

The more you've read, the easier it will be to write, and the earlier you started reading for pleasure and enjoying it, the better writer you will be for it.

Anonymous said...

I believe that if you want to write well, especially in literary fiction but also in other genres, it is essential to educate yourself by reading constantly and widely. We shouldn't be writing solely for ourselves, for our own careers and our own gratification, but to make a contribution to an art form. We as writers are participants in a creative human endeavor that has a long history. The more we read, the more we avail ourselves of the tools of our literary ancestors, and the more we can begin to formulate the nature of our own artistic contributions to literary history.

anassarhenisch said...

Writers need to be aware of what's expected in their genre, which means read fairly widely in it and reading books on related topics or in related genres. These days I think it's also good to have a passing familiarity with film media in the genre you're writing in. (I'm talking fiction writers here. Non-fiction writers are something else entirely.) I read

I'm with Faulkner on the need to read a range of books and a range of quality. I've learned a lot personally about How Not To Do Things, I've learned a lot about what doesn't work for me as a reader (and which I assume won't work for me as a writer), and I've learned a lot about how to my fiction better. I don't think more than a couple works of trash or a couple classics are necessary, unless you're deliberately trying to emulate them or you really enjoy the style.

I think a lot of what it take to be a good writer comes from practicing writing. A lot also comes from being able to look at what you read, gauge the quality, see how good stories are told, and then apply those lessons to your own writing. You could read every book in the world, but if you don't practice writing or if you're not aware of how to tell a story, then you won't ever be a good writer. (Also, if you read every book everyone says you should, when will you ever find time to write or work or sleep?)

Reba said...

Yes, but as "well-read" is entirely subjective, I don't think it's possible to quantify the meaning. I have noticed that the more I write, the more discerning I've become about what I read, so I wonder if we become less broadly-read as we progress with our own craft and more well-read.

I read across genres, mostly because I am looking for a good story. Non-fiction work can provide that, as well. Once I get past a certain point in a WIP, I find it difficult to read fiction, especially in my genre, but have no problems reading non-fiction, especially if it informs my current project. (I will not hold forth on the fictive nature of historical writing, as better minds than mine have explored that in detail and are still arguing it.) I don't find that reading other work distorts my voice, rather that, once I get to the point where my story is all consuming, I prefer be reading the book I'm writing than one written by someone else.

Lora said...

I think in one's genre it would be ideal to have read good examples (or at least successful examples). The more I read in any genre, though, I feel like i learn about pacing, word choice, everything!

Marilyn Peake said...

I love and agree with the William Faulkner quote. I think it’s extremely important for a writer to be well-read. Reading won’t make a writer out of someone lacking writing talent, but books are the training and education that allow a person with writing talent to actually become a good writer. It would be very difficult for a person with the innate ability to become a fantastic photographer or movie director to actually become one if they refused to look at more than a few photographs or movies. Becoming a great writer, or even a good writer, takes a lot of hard work. Reading lots of books can also be hard work, especially when a person’s tired. But trying to write a good book without being well-read is taking a shortcut that probably won’t work.

To me, being well-read doesn’t necessarily mean reading while actually writing a book, or even adding reading to a temporary schedule in which a person cuts way back on sleep to hold down a job, raise children and write. To me, though, being well-read means having read and studied many books including those within a writer’s genre, and returning to reading more books as soon as possible.

There are exceptions, of course. Stephenie Meyer has said that she refused to read any vampire books at all because she didn’t want to be influenced by them. I thought her lack of background showed in her TWILIGHT series. But then she’s made millions of dollars on her series, so who am I to judge?

J. R. McLemore said...

I think you should be well read in the genre you write in to try to steer clear of reinventing the wheel.

Also, I feel that reading outside of your genre is a great way to see how other writers describe scenes, pace the story, break up chapters, etc. Although, I don't think it necessarily to read more outside of the genre you want to write in.

I like to read good and bad so I can learn what distinguishes the two. Like Stephen King said, even the bad books have a lot to teach! I think well-read is defined differently by everyone, but with so many books out there, I doubt anyone has or will ever read them all. Just read as much as you can. Eventually, you may be considered well-read.

Rick Daley said...


I'll agree to disagree. I stand by the non-causal relationship theory. And I'll add a caveat acknowledging that being well-read certainly improves one's writing (which could have been good to begin with).

Does anyone know Steven Levitt? Can we get his expertise here? If Kevin Bacon is six steps from anyone, with all the writers/agents/editors around these parts Levitt has to be like one or two steps at most.

WORD VERIFICATION: forsp. The fourth in a sequence of lisps.

Suzannah-Write It Sideways said...

Of course you need to be well-read to be a good writer. I would even agree you need to read a bit of trash along with the treasures, because you need to know what doesn't work, along with what does work, and why.

I made a pact with myself to stop watching tv at night. Instead, I get 3 random books from the library at a time, with the idea that I have to finish at least one of them. Last week I ended up picking 2 that were so poorly written, I couldn't get past the first 20 pages, and the third was well-written, but quite challenging in its language and structure.

Instinctively, I ended up choosing the third to read to the end. Someone who has a desire to write also has an desire to read good literature.

Love your site, by the way. Plenty of great advice. Thanks :)

D. G. Hudson said...

Yes, I believe you do need to be well-read, in a broad range of topics. A writer should always be aware of what's currently out there as well. I don't think you should only read in the genre or type that you write, as it's simply too restricting.

I define 'well-read' as someone who has read certain classics, the best writers in their genre, some literary works, and some current or new works. I think variety in what you read enriches your life experience, which spills over into your writing.

I also read newsletters from NASA which is a great place to research certain info on sci-fi stories.

Most of my personal choices concentrate in the sci-fi or mystery areas, but I also read the literary novels of Hemingway, biographies of musicians, and notables like Hunter S. Thompson, etc.

genelladegrey said...

I'd say one should be well read in the genre they are shooting for as a writer.


Rick Daley said...

Were there no good writers until there existed a sufficient library of material for one to be considered well-read?

Kourtnie McKenzie said...

You should be so well-read in your genre that you can point to a dozen books with a friend at any time and say, "I recommend this! And this!" without an eye-blink.

And I personally found studying English in college to be helpful, because while we might not live in the age of classics, there's always something about language to be learned from them.

Reading outside the genre you write for is also beneficial because it shows you what your literature shouldn't be (and hopefully what you're reading is amazing in ways to that genre!)

Donna Gambale said...

Great question!

I believe in reading a reasonable amount in your own genre, but you don't want to get overwhelmed by a TBR pile, so I think that it's most important to at least know about what's already out and the upcoming releases. I actually like to read things that are similar (in style or plot) to my novel because it helps me see what works and what doesn't.

Reading outside your genre keeps your writing fresh. A decent background in classics is helpful, but I haven't read Moby Dick and I don't think I'm a worse writer for it.

Whether the book is "literary" or "commercial" (argh I hate those labels!), it's worthwhile. You learn from the good, the bad, and the ugly. Just read!

jimnduncan said...

Have to say I'm a bit on the fence with this one. I can certainly see the point that Colleen Lindsay made, in that if you aren't very familiar with the kind of story you are writing, folks are going to know. It makes perfect sense. I don't however agree that you must be well read to be a good writer. I definitely doesn't hurt, and generally will only help to improve one's writing. Reading also is a great provider of inspiration and motivation. Reading a really compelling, well written story always gets my juices flowing to write.

However, some folks I believe have a greater knack for good storytelling. It's just in their blood. Personally, I'm not well read. I read maybe a dozen books a year. Much of this is more a time factor than anything else, but I also am not a fast reader. I read mostly fantasy and thrillers. The book I wrote, which Nathan is now representing, began as a thriller, albeit with some paranormal elements in it. Little did I know, that what I was writing happened to fall within the purview of urban fantasy. This is not a genre I've really read at all. Consequently, my story offers something a bit different (at least I hope it does) compared to the genre as a whole. So, I did something well without actually be well read at all. I wrote the story I wanted, and that's where it happened to fall. This of course just reinforces that addage about just writing what compels you and don't worry so much about what genre you're writing for.

Marilyn Peake said...

Rick Daley asked:
"Were there no good writers until there existed a sufficient library of material for one to be considered well-read?"

There were certainly nowhere near as many great writers until that sufficient library of material. We’ve come a long way since Beowulf.

Bane of Anubis said...

Nope, no good writers, but there were some guys who could make some pretty cool pictures on cave walls.

Dawn Herring said...

I read a mix of memoir and fiction since those are the genres of my primary book projects. I find reading best sellers in these genres give me an inside view of what works. I appreciate the genre so much more when I can see all the different approaches there are to the basic framework of fiction and memoir.
I don't have issue with reading the same genre when I'm writing because of the benefits.
I often read books recommended by others. When I do, I end up reading books that I may not otherwise read. Of course there is only so much time in a day to read, so I choose carefully.

Anonymous said...

Way to go Jim Duncan!!!

I only read a few books a year, and I certainly hope I don't have to be similar to all of the other books of my genre to be good. I always thought agents were looking for uniqueness.

What does 'well read' mean anyway?

J.J. Bennett said...

The key phrase in that statement is "good writer". To be good at anything you must practice and do something often. Reading and writing go hand in hand. It's like saying,"Do I need to know my A,B,C's to write?" Of course you do, otherwise people won't understand a bit of it.

J.J. Bennett said...

I'm seeing a great childrens book out of this post today... Interesting...

anniegirl1138 said...

You should read what interests you and write about what intrigues you and not worry so much about what anyone might think.

Marsha Sigman said...

How can you perfect your craft if you don't study it? Being well read is vital to being a good writer. I'm not going to try to perform surgery because I've watched a few episodes on the Discovery Medical channel. I think I would study the profession first!

How can you want to be a writer and not want to read constantly? Its not whether you should or shouldn't be well can you stop yourself?

Megan said...

I write children's lit and I've read this advice from a couple children's writers: "read 100 books like the one you want to write."

Of course, this can be accomplished a lot faster if you're writing picture books than middle grade novels. But I think the gist of the idea is still valid: get out there and take in a nice broad sampling.

I don't keep count and don't sweat it too much, but just try to run with the spirit of that rule and always have something in the cue at the library--maybe a title I hear a lot about but have never read, maybe the next selection for my children's lit book group (having someone else choose the title forces me out of my box a bit) or maybe something by a writer coming to town soon. All these have been good ways for me to pick up something I might not otherwise.

I think the idea that your voice will be overpowered by reading other people's work is a bit loony. Would a musician only compose and never listen to other music?

Alas, as with everything in writing, there's more than one way to do it. So maybe that actually does work for some people. Maybe...

Ink said...


It's interesting that you chose no for needing to be well read, and that you didn't consider yourself well read... and yet at a dozen books a year, compared to most of the world, you're probably very well read indeed.

I own a bookstore, and a dozen books a year is quite a bit more than average, and this is among people who do read, and who do like (and buy) books. And when you add in the people who don't read books at all...

Anyway, I find this whole discussion interesting, particularly how people define the idea of well read, whether overtly or incidentally.

Anonymous said...


I rated myself as not well read also, and it depends on my time but 12 books a year seems like a good average for me.

You did notice Jim said he had never read his own genre of urban fantasy before. I think that's cool and can't wait to read his book. I expect it to be totally different from everyone else's, and that excites me.

It is very annoying to pick up a book and see similiar writing, the same words, or plot as another author in the same genre to me.It happens often in urban fantasy.

Marilyn Peake said...

jimnduncan –

You don’t have to answer this question if you don’t want to: How many books would you say you’ve read in your lifetime? To me, well-read simply means having read a lot of books. Adults often get busy. There have been many years when I haven’t read nearly as many books as I read when I was a teenager, although I read a large number of books this past spring and summer when I suddenly had a lot of free time. When I was in college and graduate school, I mostly read textbooks and reading assignments. If I counted all the books I’ve read in my lifetime, it would add up to a fairly significant number. During years in which I was lucky to get four hours of sleep a night, I didn’t read so much.

Mystergonia said...

Hey, how is possible to talk with you to become (if all think is alright ) my literature agent?

Karla Doyle said...

You Tell Me: Is It Possible for Nathan Bransford to Post (about anything, anything at all) and Get Less Than 150 Comments?


Back on topic now. Colleen Lindsay's comment nailed it for me.

Marilyn Peake said...


Do you think living a full life is as important to becoming a good writer as being well-read?

I’d say it is, or at least the observing of life, as many writers are hermits. I’m thinking that writers often write profoundly after coming out of difficult circumstances in which they might not have had access to large quantities of books.

Mara Wolfe said...

Of course you have to be well read. Would a horse trainer attempt to train a horse without riding quite a few? No. A writer should be well read, reading the bad stuff along with the good, so they can learn the difference between the two.

P.A.Brown said...

I personally have always been a heavy reader, from about 5 years old on. Coming from a small insular Canadian city it was my first glimpse of worlds beyond. It's one of the things that led me to leave home when I was 22 and move to L.A.

I think reading is essential to writers. You don't learn this stuff by just wanting it to happen. No one comes out of the womb with the ability to create beautiful sentences or understanding on how to craft compelling characters. would you want a surgeon operating on you who hadn't studied what he was doing? Medical students are expected to observe other surgeons at work. Then they read about all the things they are expected to know. Then they do it themselves, first on corpses, then under supervised conditions then as real doctors. You want a doctor who tells you, 'no, I never watched anyone do this before, but trust me, I know what I'm doing?'

I personally wouldn't trust a writer who told me they didn't read. I also think you need to read outside your chosen genre, at least occasionally.

Grapeshot/Odette said...

To be well read indicates more than a passing familiarity with the classics and great novels and poetry. I notice that writer's who are not well read tend to misuse words and have more limited vocabularies. I'm not talking about long, obscure words, but some of the best words in the language.

Yes. Read. Read. Read. In and out of your genre.

Robin said...

I don't believe that a person can be a writer in any medium that they are not familiar with. If you write books, you should read books. If you write screenplays, you should watch movies. If you write jokes, you should read comics or watch comedians. You should actively participate in the medium you wish to work in. If not, as a participant myself, I really have no interest in your contribution. And guess what? It probably isn't very good.

Anonymous said...

To me, Faulkner is spot on. Well-read is everything. From good to bad (hey one man’s trash is another’s treasure), and in a variety of genres. Good story telling can come in westerns or fantasy or mystery or __________. Most important, more than reading the material, is the act of analyzing it while you read and when you’re done. For me, it’s a great book when I get so wrapped up, I forget to analyze.

You definitely need to be well-read in the genre you write in, but reading heavily in it while you write? Not a good idea. I don’t worry about plagiarizing, rather being original and keeping my own voice.

Kathie said...

Definitely, to be a good writer, you should be well-read. I'm convinced of it. And not just within your genre, but beyond as well. If nothing else, at least you'll be better equipped to know the agents you want representing you, the market your writing best fits in, and become more viable to publishers. And by reading cross-genre, you might find that your own writing might be better suited elsewhere. The trends ebb and flow like the ocean, so being well-read is equivalent to being a well-educated, consumer aware, business savvy author. Key word: author.

Les Edgerton said...

Jim Harrison said the same thing as Faulkner, when he said, (paraphrased) "To be a good writer, one should read the whole of Western literature for the past 400 years, and... if you live long enough, the same 400 years of Eastern literature. For if you don't know what passed for good in the past, how can you know what's good today?

I don't think it's important, necessarily, to be well-read to be published, but I do if you want to produce quality literature. There are many books published by people who are obviously ill-read, and if that's all that's important to one, then fine. But, if a writer desires to write well, I don't see how it's possible without following Harrison's and Faulkner's advice. Publication, in and of itself, is no gauge of quality.

Nettie Hartsock said...

I think you have to read all the time and don't just read the books from the last ten years - go back and read as many books as you can from the last 50 years. It's amazing to watch the cycles in literary work especially.

Great Question!!

J.J. Bennett said...


I have a question for you... (It goes along with this idea in a way.) How do you think blogging has helped your writing? Does anyone feel it's helped in their endevors to become a "good writer"? Just something that occured to me...

P.A.Brown said...

Plus, how can you be original if you don't know what's been done before you? I know Ben Bova who edited Analog at one time said he could tell when a writer who sent him a story didn't know the genre -- their stories were so cliched he could recognize them in a line or two. He actually came up with a list of the ten most used plots. You'd only avoid them if you were well read in the field.

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't know if life experience is necessary. I think having a sense of human nature and motivation is helpful, but given the success of some young wildly talented writers I don't know that living a full life is truly necessary. I think you're right that it's more about the observing of life.


Blogging got me in the habit of writing quite often, although it's hard to say how much it helped my fiction. I suppose it helped me a bit in finding an authorial voice, but WONDERBAR is pretty different than the blog.

Terresa said...

Being well-read helps but there's no perfect equation. Having an MFA doesn't equal success as a writer. But drawing from a depth of well-written literature and having an understanding of that literature helps writers.

What about those gifted writers born with a pen in their hand who can spin off fiction like crazy, with or without being well-read?

J.J. Bennett said...

The reason why I asked, is because I think it's helped me write my thoughts more quickly and formulate them better in all areas of writing. I see things I may have missed previously.

P.A.Brown said...

I would put writers born with pen in hand in the same category as Einstein. A genius, and very, very rare. I'm not sure I've ever actually heard of one. Do you have someone in mind who was that talented right off the bat?

Masonian said...

That is the short answer.

One reason (among many): How are you going to identify cliche's and/or things that have already been done to death if you don't read?

Particularly the classics within your genre. It is important to see the development of the genre to potentially find a "new branch" that hasn't been followed.

Example: if you are happily writing a sparkly vampire novel while muttering "Twlilight, what?" STOP.
Go read a buttload of vampire fiction and see how you can make yours waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay different.

That is all.

J.J. Bennett said...

Of course I'm working on becoming a better writer, so it may be making a difference.

Masonian said...

As to reading garbage.

If you read garbage and think it is wonderful, you will probably also write garbage.

If you have a modicum of talent, you will read garbage and let it stand as a warning. Like shipwrecks rusting on reefs. "Don't write like this, beware the purple prose pitfall." etc.

That being said, writing (and by extension, reading)garbage may have more commercial value if money's what you want.
Just don't expect people to be reading it in ten years.

Etiquette Bitch said...

I agree with Richard Kriheli..."well read" is tricky. Sometimes, despite my English BA, I feel like a dolt during any "literature" category run on Jeopardy!

I think in addition to being "well-read" (whatever that is) it's important to get out and just see life, stimulate your creativity. I really have no use for writers who think bitching about Bravo's TV lineup passes for literature.

J.J. Bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Q said...

You can't define well-read. Just read and write as much as you can.

J.J. Bennett said...

I think it was Stephen King who said something like... Reading something written badly is often good because you can learn from them on the "what not to dos". There's a quote in his book "On Writing" on this very subject. Reading both good and bad writing have their perks.

J.J. Bennett said...

So basically, read everything and anything...

Nathan I'd think you could prove that same point considering all you read...

B.J. Anderson said...

I think Faulkner had it right. Read anything and everything. Reading is knowledge, and you won't know your wip is original unless you've compared it to other books that are already out there. Great topic!

LitWitch said...

In a word: yes.

Good writers ARE well-read in that they read a lot, learn about language and style and subject and POV from other authors whom they admire (or don't). One cannot create in a vacuum, or, at least, very rarely with that resonate with the rest of the world who has been influenced by other media you've chosen to ignore.


Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks for answering my question, Nathan. You raise a good point. Maybe, as you say, it’s a "sense of human nature and motivation" that great writers have. Some great writers are solitary creatures, but have a tremendous grasp of how people talk and behave.

Marilyn Peake said...

P.A. Brown said:
"I would put writers born with pen in hand in the same category as Einstein. A genius, and very, very rare."

However, Einstein studied his field before making his own discoveries. He struggled with math, but understood science.

Sharon Mayhew said...

Newberry winner Linda Sue Parks said, at The 2008 Highlights Foundation Summer Workshop, "You should read at least 100 books in your genre before you start writing a book."

I agree with her, you have to read a lot. But it's not just reading, it's studying someone elses work to improve your own skills.

I read somewhere that Nathan reads 365 books a year. I think he must be....da da daaa...Super Agent!

Anonymous said...

If you read garbage and think it is wonderful, you will probably also write garbage.

Garbage is subjective.

That being said, writing (and by extension, reading)garbage may have more commercial value if money's what you want. Just don't expect people to be reading it in ten years.

So, your definition of garbage is commercial fiction?

Anonymous said...

365 books a year? That's amazing, how does he ever do anything else?

jkinkade said...

I guess it depends on how you define "good writer." One who gets great literary reviews or one who sells a lot of books. I just read that Dan Brown doesn't read a whole lot, but he sure sells a whole lot. Do sales alone make him a good writer? Maybe. Maybe not. Would he be a better writer if he were more well read? Maybe. Maybe not.

I think the same question can be applied to singers (or actors)--do they need to have sung or at least heard all the best before they can be a good singer. Nope. They don't.

So I think the answer to your question is, no. But it wouldn't hurt you to be well-read, unless you're so well-read that you don't have time to write.

Anonymous said...

I have a feeling if I ever manage to get published, most everyone on this blog will be trashing my writing.

I find it truly discouraging that we insult each other in this manner.

I read, but not the classics. I read for pure entertainment. Many of the books that have been trashed on this sight, I enjoy. Maybe we should step back and think, is it possible as writers that we have forgotten who we were writing for? Do we want to be literary snobs, or do we want to make people love what we do? The best-selling authors (although a few did do some bashing) didn't get there by trashing fellow writers; they got there by connecting with the average citizen. And average people are usually the ones who shoot those sales into best-seller-dom.

I expect to be shot down for my post, but I just couldn't stop my fingers; so I'll apologize now for any offense you may take at my words.

And call me crazy, but I also bought a 6 month old filly, my very first horse ever, riding experience equaled to paying $20 and hour on a dog horse that wouldn't even trot, and broke her myself. We now have six horses, three of which I broke, other three were already trained. My daughter now shows and wins everywhere she goes. So yes, us psycho people think they can do anything without experience, and sometimes we even suceed.

Anonymous said...

Smack my face.

I broke my filly, not the dog horse.

Smack, smack, smack!

Marilyn Peake said...

I think that people may have different ideas about what being well-read means. Dan Brown has a college degree and was an English teacher at a private residential academy before becoming a successful novelist, so he must have read many books in college and for his job. Also, I’m pretty sure he does a lot of research for the books he writes, including reading nonfiction sources. In a recent interview, he said that it took him six years to write his latest novel, The Lost Symbol.

ALS said...

Read everything, I like what Faulkner said. Read because you love it, not just to sell books. Read because it's fun to escape and then write because it's fun to escape.

Anonymous said...

Depends, if you're writing "Non-Fiction" you better be well read! Otherwise you're not an authoritative source. One would hope someone has at least read 'some' books before delving into writing their own. Stylistically one develops as time and experience drives them to new heights. Everyone has influences and no one can remain in a bubble. Having said that one doesn't want to copy the totality of another person's work- however simply being influenced by another is no problem.

Shawn said...

Being well read is never a bad thing. It can help in any profession but is necessary for a writer in order to find one's own voice.

Karla Doyle said...

Anon 4:54 - I see the words 'garbage' and 'trash' pop up, and like you, I guess they're in reference to the types of books I really enjoy reading. I watch almost no television and very few movies - reading is my favourite form of entertainment and 9 times out of 10 I like a happily ever after. I read for myself, not to impress others.
Don't be ashamed of what you like to read (or write) - just go ahead and enjoy it.

Adam Heine said...

I think it's like any art. It's possible to burst forth with your own amazing style without any knowledge of what's out there, but most of us learn from the masters first.

So do you need to be well-read? No. Should you be? Heck, yes.

SZ said...

It seems that if you went to school, have books or blog , , , then you, well, read.

Who determines said well readness ? I know, not a word.

I like what Natalie 9:13 and Author Guy 10:38 said. It is easy to write what you know and have experienced. The trick is writing it well.

Nathan, I tried to read each one of these ! I am too slow. How do you moderate all this ? ! Busy busy.

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