Eight Ways Being a Reader is Crucial for Writers
This article originally appeared on Robin Mason's blog on January 24, 2019.
I have been invited to speak to high school and middle school language classes. When we get to the question and answer part of what is the most important thing someone can do to prepare to be a writer, I tell them, “be a reader.” Those who cannot understand are doomed to be neither.
It’s not too much to presume that people who want to play with words do so because they love them. It may be a love/hate relationship, but it must passionate, as passion undergirds story. If you have little experience with story, whether it’s someone else’s or your own, you are in no position to offer a tale to anyone else. As you can read between the lines above, being story—that is, living widely enough to be able to look back and appreciate the scenes that make up life—is the second part of an equation for authorship that has an endless answer like the square root of pi. For now we’ll focus on the first aspect—Why Read?
A person who wants to write literature but will not read it can sound like a human explaining to a guppy what it’s like to sit in a recliner and watch television. Anyone can learn the mechanics of language. People can learn to repeat a joke or assemble facts for a report, but a storyteller is an inventor. Inventors don’t generally birth a concept into an immediate, fully-functional working contraption without some apprenticeship, doodling, tweaking, and trial and error. A person with an idea who refuses to go through the work of developing that notion into a presentable product usually gives up, hires someone else, or fails.
Like inventors, authors are constantly learning. We learn from others, and from trial and error. Here are eight ways being a gluttonous reader helps writers.
1, Osmosis. Yes, the sponge effect. By soaking up good stuff, it will seep into your membranes. You may not know initially why a sentence sounds good, or a piece of dialog has a great back-and-forth that just works, but it will stay with you and you’ll have a better chance of spitting it back out in a sensible way. However, you know what happens when you let your sponge sit in unpleasant gunk. Rinse and repeat. Do this by
2, Reading carefully. Read from different large publishers and indies, as well as some self-published material. If you don’t have a library card, get one. Even rural communities have access to public libraries. Become such a good reader that you’ll be able to figure out if the publisher missed an error. Large publishers have several layers of editing and proofreading before they give a product to the public. Learn what sort of material is popular, and are good sellers, talked about, and why. You should also
3. Read widely, especially outside your genre. Include nonfiction, especially poetry, and fiction. Nonfiction takes a practical approach to a topic. There are often reference and notes about research. Fiction writers can find new avenues of research, and information that will make fiction that much closer to believability. Nonfiction authors can learn to put their material together in ways that create interest and intrigue. Poetry is the ultimate distillation of language to create story. If you don’t know poets, find some! Writers will have to create marketing material for their own work, which often includes back cover copy, a synopsis, a hook sentence, and a biography. This material should be attention-grabbing and poets know how to draw the essence from experience with a perfect word.
4. Copy. Not plagiarize. Go ahead and keep a notebook of phrases that move you from the books you read. Why did that word or scene or sentence evoke emotion? How can you create that mood in your story? Begin to appreciate the doodling, the tweaking, the sweat that went into developing that moment. Know that quite likely, that phrase or sentence was the result of several minds mulling over the words. The author may have originated it, or perhaps the urging came from an agent or developmental editor. A copy editor may have requested a tweak. A publisher may have asked for an addition or deletion. Careful, studious readers can understand that writers will have to develop a working relationship with their editors and their readers. Careful readers will eventually come to appreciate the
5. Rules of language. Grammar. The mere presence of the word can be as frightening as the word algebra is to those of us who think it’s ridiculous there can be an endless answer to the square root of pi. Good readers should pick up some natural grammatical dynamics, general punctuation, and the understanding that syntax will guide your vocabulary choices. As an editor, however, I say this concept is wishful thinking more than it should be. Bibliophiles will need to spend some time undoing whatever it is that made you think it was okay to put a period outside of a quotation mark, or dangle prepositions, or misplace modifiers. Readers who learn grammar will unfortunately be utterly ruined for reading after some of the mystery of untangling language is revealed.
But, wait! Now writers who are qualified to know when it’s okay to break the rules will be inducted into the secret society of those who can break them well. You may not have even noticed the number of times I begin a sentence or a paragraph with a conjunction. What you won’t know is how many adverbs and modifiers I removed or the tenses or plurals I adjusted in my self-edit, and that’s as it should be. Don’t be one of those authors who argue with their editor about how so-and-so author broke this-and-such rule. Don’t bother to hire an editor if you know everything. If you’re smart enough to know that you don’t know everything, you’ll be admitted to the inner circle of knowing when it’s okay for YOU to break the rules. Because writers who read know general rules, they see patterns. A single paisley flower in a plaid weave sticks out. So does your attempt to change points of view or use the wrong tense. These errors make writers look bad. It can affect your
6. Natural marketing and networking. If you ask for endorsements or reviews from authors you respect, but are turned down or get a bad review, readers are not inclined to spend money on a product they don’t think they will enjoy. They won’t tell others to buy the book, or worse, will tell others how bad it is. Word of mouth will always be the best marketing for any product or service. Authors who read should talk about what we’re reading and something about why we like it or think others will like it. We recommend books to book clubs, our friends, and our circles of influence. Those of us who teach use your work as material in our talks and workshops.
7. Reading also shows us how to do Market Analysis for our own work. Reading other books like ours and comparing our work helps define our readership. And finally, reading authors
8. Help other authors with a REVIEW! Review books on as many social and publisher’s sites as you can. Use your name and website link. Reviewing is a great service networking with other authors and their readers.
Ultimately, our goal as Authors should be that we are Read. If all you want is to be published, that’s a pretty small niche. Anyone can get published these days. Any writer can write. An author shares a gift that multiplies and enlarges a reader’s spirit.
*Photos within the post are licensed by Creative Commons and free to reprint for personal and commercial use without attribution. They are courtesy of Pixabay.