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Why Good Writers Read

Updated on January 10, 2017
TessSchlesinger profile image

Globetrotter, author, and thinker with interests in environment, minimalism, health, dancing, architecture, décor, politics, and science.

Why Creative Writers Must Read

In his book “On Writing,” Steven King says when giving a speech, there is one question he is consistently asked at question time. It is, “What do you read?” In his book he says that it is an impossible question to answer because he reads so many books that it is not possible to answer in a minute or less. In his book, he gives a long list.

If you’re an indie author, you’ve no doubt been told that it’s good to market your books to other writers, because writers read. Right? Only here’s the thing. Today, most ‘writers’ don’t read. You can look at the statistics for that. Only 5% of people in first world countries read, and of that 5%, only 2% read with any frequency. Reading a book or two per year does not make someone a reader. An average reader reads, at least, a book a week.

Here’s the bugbear. According to some statistics years ago, 80% of Americans wanted to be a writer. So that means 75% of the people who want to write don’t read.

Reading is one of the ultimate pleasures in life. For writers, it is the fuel of invention, creation, and imagination.
Reading is one of the ultimate pleasures in life. For writers, it is the fuel of invention, creation, and imagination.

Do All Successful Writers Read?

Yes!

When I was working for the Mail and Guardian (at the time, an offshoot of the Guardian in London), I spoke to Maggie Philips, the publisher at David Philips publishing in South Africa. She asked me whether I read fiction or non-fiction. “Predominantly non-fiction,” I replied. She then told me that all her writers (including Nobel prize and Booker prize winners) read non-fiction.

She took for granted that I read – it was just a matter of what I read!

Rhythm in Writing Makes Text Pop!

Most business writers ignore the power of rhythm.  They think rhythm is for poets, musicians, and dancers. Why would a business writer worry about something as esoteric as rhythm?
Most business writers ignore the power of rhythm. They think rhythm is for poets, musicians, and dancers. Why would a business writer worry about something as esoteric as rhythm? | Source

Why Is It Important for Writers To Read?

There is great argument whether creative writing is a talent or whether it can be learnt. There is, of course, no doubt that literacy is learnt. We can all learn good grammar, sentence structure, paragraph organization and the various technical aspects of writing. So what differentiates a talented writer from someone who has an admirable grasp of the technicalities of writing?

Rhythm and Imagination!

There is a certain rhythm in writing, just as there is a certain rhythm in speaking. It cannot be taught, and I suspect that is where the ‘talent’ lies.

Reading is not optional for a writer.

Rhythm in Writing

All good writing has a particular rhythm. Just like rhythmic poetry, the words have a certain metre. Because English has many different synonyms, there is a variety of words one can use to describe something. For instance, the words attractive, pretty, lovely, beautiful all mean something similar. The writer who has an ear for the rhythm of what s/he is writing will select the word that enhances the rhythm of the piece.

One of the reasons academic writing is so tedious to read is because it lacks this rhythm. Of course, there are academic writers who do have that rhythm, but it is the exception not the rule.

The other vital aspect of this is that many wannabe writers fail because they are unaware that the general timbre of their writing jars with the reader. Someone who has read six or seven books a month immediately picks up this lack of rhythm. They won’t read any further. I know I won’t.

So powerful is this rhythm, that until fairly recently, editors of magazines and newspapers simply read one or two paragraphs of someone’s writing in order to determine whether they could write or not.

"When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes."
"When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes." | Source

Learning Rhythm in Writing

First let me draw an analogy here.

If you learn to speak a language when you are very young, you speak like a native with the same natural rhythm and the same pronunciation. When you attempt to learn to speak a foreign language in your later years, you struggle with the pronunciation (virtually impossible for some languages) and the rhythm is really difficult to acquire. People will always know that you aren’t a native speaker – more or less as you open your mouth to speak.

The reason that you struggle to learn pronunciation later is because it is the epiglottis in the throat which forms sound. When we are young, it is still forming, and it is able to make any sounds we ask of it. However, by time we are teenagers, it is fully formed, and then the epiglottis cannot form sounds it did not learn earlier. The answer, you see, is physiological.

We learn rhythm in writing when we are very young. I started reading books and magazines in the first week of my second year at school. That was because the teacher showed us a small comic book and told us about a library. I took the comic book home with me, read it and was hooked! It took another week for me to persuade my mother to register me at the library and from that day on, throughout my school days, I read two books a day during school time and four books a day during vacation time.

That’s where I learnt rhythm in writing. Simply reading the work of other writers for an extended length of time when you are very young is where you absorb the rhythm of good writing. Writers absorb the rhythm of other writers, and they do it from a very young age when the brain is still forming and they are learning language. Learning to write in a rhymic way is as much a way of 'picking up another language' as learning the spoken word.

So the bottom line is this: if you don’t read and if you have never read substantially, regardless of how good your grammar and your structure is, you don’t have an ear for the rhythm of writing, and you won’t even know that it’s missing. But your reader will… Ironically, those writers who wish for feedback from others aren’t able to recognize the lack in their own writing precisely because they don’t read sufficiently.

Imagination

Years ago, I attended a week’s summer school for writers in the UK. I attended for two days before walking out. Here’s why.

On the second day, I attended a fantasy workshop. We were all seated around in a horseshoe arrangement, and the professor (a self-published author) gave us a five minute assignment. We were to think of two characters, a magical item, a goal, a plot, etc. In order to do this, she passed around a hat with some names in it (for one of the characters), and gave us a list of magical items we could use, etc. She also said we needn’t use any of those.

For myself, I selected a character from South African Xhosa mythology, put him on the high seas in a boat reminiscent of one of Frank Yerby’s yarns, and concocted a plot that came together from stitching a recent news story in the Czech Republic with a set of circumstances that used to exist in ancient Greece.

Then the moment came we were to tell our stories to the room. I was sitting in the middle of the horseshoe arrangement.

The first lady started and I recognized all the components from JK Rowling. Everybody applauded and clapped. The second lady gave her story, also all components from JK Rowling. Everybody applauded and clapped The third lady also drew her story from JK Rowling and everybody applauded and clapped. The forth lady was a bit different. She took her components from Anne Rice, and the fifth one from Enid Blyton. But there was not an original thought amongst them.

And then it was my turn.

I gave my story and when I had finished, there was a dead silence. Not a single person clapped. No applause.

I cannot begin to explain to you the degree of my embarrassment and humiliation. And then the girl next to me gave her story and, yup, another JK Rowling wannabe plus a Tolkien wannabe plus a Gaiman and Pratchett wannabe. And they were all applauded and clapped for.

The next day was the second day of the course, and I never went back. Afterwards, the professor approached me and asked me why I hadn’t returned. I was too embarrassed to tell her how humiliated I was. Imagine what I felt when she said, “I selected your story to work on – it was the only one that evidenced any imagination.”

Yup. I packed up my stuff a few hours later and went home.

...imagination is the product of a widespread network of neurons that consciously alters and manipulates images, symbols, and ideas...
...imagination is the product of a widespread network of neurons that consciously alters and manipulates images, symbols, and ideas... | Source

How many books do you read a year?

See results

So Where Does Imagination Come From?

It comes from reading non-fiction books. It comes from reading news. It comes from reading academic books.

There’s a reason Isaac Asimov was a science professor and Robin Cook qualified as a medical doctor and Wayne Dyer was a psychiatrist. The core of all imagination is an extensive factual knowledge base.

Imagination comes from intense different life experiences. It comes from traveling It comes from being extremely poor and extremely rich. It comes from anguish and joy examined and overcome.

I once spoke to a professional writer. She specialized in business writing and wanted to know where I got my ideas from (I never struggle for ideas.) I told her that I read a lot. She explained to me that she read a lot as well. I asked her what she read. She said detective fiction. I asked her what she wanted to write. She told me detective fiction. I asked her if she had ever read a forensic science book. She said no. I asked her if she had ever read a police report. She said no. So I explained to her that she had no knowledge of the genre she wanted to write in, and that’s why her imagination was not functioning very well.

In order to have imagination, you have to have a large source of non-factual information. If you look at the lives of the world’s best selling authors, you will find that they read extensively (at least a book a week), travel widely, are generally well educated, and they are thinkers not feelers!

So that’s why good writers read.

Oh, they also read because reading is an extremely pleasurable activity. And the more you read, the faster you get. By the age of fourteen, I was reading 500 pages in an hour, and the good news is that if you start reading a book a week now, in no time at all, you should be able to read a book in an hour or two.

© 2017 Tessa Schlesinger

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    • AceCarn profile image

      Carn Sundavrgarm 7 months ago from USA

      1. read

      2. elibrary doesn't have it :P

      3. doesn't look like my kind of book

      4. read

      5. I will check it out :)

      Thanks

    • TessSchlesinger profile image
      Author

      Tessa Schlesinger 7 months ago from South Africa

      I loved Alan Quaterain by Rider Haggard, Dune by Frank Herbert, Soyonara by James Mitchener, Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams... :)

    • AceCarn profile image

      Carn Sundavrgarm 7 months ago from USA

      Yep, Wells and Haggard are also great writers. I always liked The People of the Mist better than She or King Solomon's Mines though. Is that bad taste? ;)

      I never cared for Dumas and I've never read Bronte.

      If you haven't read it, Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott is another great book. It is a book that really makes you think about your view of the 3(or more) dimensions.

      I am hoping to get around to War and Peace this year but we will see how that turns out :) Right now I am enjoying the Throne of Glass series.

      Do you have any book recommendations(new or old)? The only thing I am picky about in books is that they have little to no swearing or sexual content. I do prefer older books though, since I can get them for free :D

    • TessSchlesinger profile image
      Author

      Tessa Schlesinger 7 months ago from South Africa

      Hi AceCam. The poll says more than 25. I didn't want to frighten people off. :) I currently read between four and seven books a week, but I'm retired now, and that makes it easier. ;)

      Yes, I've rea all those. I would add Dumas, Wells, Rider Haggard, Bronte, and hundreds of others who wrote during the 19th century and at the dawn of the 20th century. I truly believe they shaped my writing. ;)

    • AceCarn profile image

      Carn Sundavrgarm 7 months ago from USA

      Great post, definitely something writers are lacking. We need more writers who have read Dickens, Hugo, and Verne and have researched their settings.

      On a side note: I asked the author of Eragon once what books he used to research medieval times and he listed 2. That was disappointing...

      The only problem with the article was the poll cuts off at 25... last year I read 98 books and I already read 10 this year...

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 7 months ago from Illinois

      I think you're right. If you want to write, read. Just like if you want to be a musician you have to listen to a lot of music. I would add, read a variety of things. Nothing worse than the fantasy author who has clearly only read Tolkien and is making an obviously derivative story off of it, for example. But the author who's read Tolkien, George RR Martin, CS Lewis, and JK Rowling and then writes a fantasy story using some elements from each and some original ideas, that's the author I'd rather read.

    • blessedp profile image

      blessedp 7 months ago

      Hi Tess,

      Good article and for a person that loves to write and not read for long periods because I am easily bored. I read your entire article and it didn't bore me. Wow! I wonder if it is too late to grasp the rhythm of reading. I am trying a new language too but pronunciation is beating me.

      I will take your sound advice and try reading a book for a month and see how I can become an avid reader over the next year.

      Thanks again.

    • Susan Hambidge profile image

      Susan Hambidge 7 months ago from Hertfordshire, England

      I noticed the writer's rhythm when I read Chocolat. I have now read all Joanne Harris books, especially loving the foodie type ones, because of this addictive rhythm she has. Nice article.

    • Maria Cecilia profile image

      Maria Cecilia 7 months ago from Philippines

      I started writing because I read a lot and got fascinated how the writers combined words and sentences and turned it into emotions and stories, I guess that's how I started writing...

    • TessSchlesinger profile image
      Author

      Tessa Schlesinger 7 months ago from South Africa

      Um Someone who reads daily will get to a reading speed of about 200 pages an hour. The average book is between 100 and 200 pages, so with practice a reader can read a book in a few hours.

      Feel free to google people who read (not skim) 500 to 600 pages an hour. Gifted people with very high IQs read at that speed.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 7 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Tess, I entirely agree, except for one thing. I don't think I've ever, in a life of reading, gotten through 500 pages in an hour! I can skim at that rate, but not really read. Although I've taken a couple of speed reading courses, I never use those techniques when I'm reading for fun. I wonder how many other readers whizz along at the rate you do.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 7 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Just sit down at the typewriter and bleed, as Red Smith said. Best of luck!

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 7 months ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      This is good, sound advice coming from an experienced writer. That same 80% that you speak of are people who are twitterpated over the somewhat overnight successes of Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, and E.L. James and believe that they can accomplish the same, attributing their successes to luck rather than skill. Some of them even believe that writing a book is easy, that is until they try doing it one day. Keep reading!

    • TessSchlesinger profile image
      Author

      Tessa Schlesinger 7 months ago from South Africa

      Thank you Kathleen. I've set aside this year to start writing books again. :) Probably making a start tomorrow or the day thereafter. I know you will understand what I mean when I say I have been busy writing inside my head! ;)

    • SakinaNasir53 profile image

      Sakina Nasir 7 months ago from Kuwait

      Such an excellent piece of work. I loved it truly and I love reading too. I started reading since grade 5 in school, developing it into a hobby and it's my bestest passion till date. It's been 14 years since I am reading. Due to that only, I started trying to write here and also have started writing my own book for the first time. You are right. To be able to write well, one has to read a lot infact everyday I believe.

      God bless you! Keep writing such beautiful articles. Great job. You go girl! ☺

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 7 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Excellent advice. Every once in a while this topic shows up here on HP, and I'm amazed at how many would-be writers freely admit (some brag) that they don't read very much. How do they expect to learn, much less excel, in their chosen craft?

      I've also attended some genre workshops and left with the impression that most of the writers hadn't written 15-20 books in the genre. They'd written one book 15-20 times. I know also that I would be a much more financially-successful writer if I wrote romance or science fiction. That is where the market is. But it is not what I want to write. So I suffer through with my meager sales, and write what I'm inspired to write. My choice. My consequences.