Read Better, Write Better

You’re reading all wrong.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Dear Writing All Wrong,

I’d like some advice on the following:

Since I’ve been writing stories I’ve hardly picked up a book to read. Some people have frowned upon me for that. They believe that reading books of successful authors can help you become one yourself. I believe it will only cause me to copy the authors’ methods of success, instead of coming up with a style of my own.

Is it really necessary to read other people’s books to become a good writer?

“That crazy German girl”, Gun Barrel City, TX

For starters, “methods of success” ≠ writing style and voice. And there’s a world of difference between “successful” authors and good authors.

Reading and writing are a balance, if a curious one. Readers who always read, never writing, remain good readers. Whereas writers who always write, never reading, may not even exist.

Reading is an important part of the input/output continuum. Can’t understate that. But let’s stick to the question, poke holes in some myths here.

1) Reading books of “successful” authors will NOT help you become one yourself.

Most “successful” books are crap. Do you want to be known as the author whose books are ones you see in grocery stores? If that were the case, we’d have more “successful” authors, no? Eating a steady stream of Big Macs, McRibs, McChicken Sandwiches, and Land, Sea, and Air McBurgers isn’t getting you closer to profiting off of owning your own McDonalds. So it is with the consumption of any product of “success.”

2) Reading books of “successful” authors will NOT cause you to copy “success.”

At best, you’ll be copying stilted prose, thin plots, and sham characters. That kind of material, for worse or for worser, could influence your voice.

But is influence a bad thing? Not really, because:

3) Reading good books will influence your style for the better. Let it happen.

You derive your style from influences. Take a gander at artists’ Wikipedia profiles. Even comedians have blurbs as to their influences. And who they influenced. Nothing new under the sun; soak it up anyway.

You can derive your economy of style from Saramago, or your expansiveness from Henry James. You can delve into the magical from reading Marquez, or the whimsical from Twain. Set your bar of influence high, and your writing will do better to follow.

Be influenced by artistry, aesthetic merit in writing. Not just “success.”

4) Read other people’s books to be a good writer? No. Read better books to be a better writer.

It isn’t 100% necessary. But it’s worth the effort.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

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