How to Be a Writer: Read

If you read any blog, list, or article about how to be a writer, they usually start with, “Read.”

And there’s a reason why so many different people espouse the same advice. Reading wide, reading often, and reading analytically is the best way to prepare yourself to write.

Here are five reasons why writers should be readers first.

1. Reading sparks your imagination

Perhaps the most obvious reason, but true nevertheless.

Reading introduces us to new worlds, both fantastical and mundane. From our chairs or beds or reading nooks, we can occupy Narnia, Hogwarts, Rohan—or 15th-century Japan, or war-torn Poland in the ’40s, or the summer of love in San Francisco.

These places—largely inaccessible to us without the medium of reading—allow us to explore, understand, imagine. We inhabit a world brimming with life, teeming with possibility. We’re filled with curiosity to know more, to understand, to immerse ourselves. And we may be inspired to write our own stories.

But it’s not just about places. Reading grants you access to other people’s minds (who cares if they’re fictional or not?) In this way, every book we pick up is a passport into the mindset, beliefs, and memories of another person. Entire avenues of thinking may be opened up for us; we may stumble upon a set of ideas that sends us careening down a path we’ve never seen before.

Sure, you can get inspiration from movies, games, your own life—but where else can you capture the kind of in-depth, personal experience that comes from reading a novel?

The best artists steal, so get reading, and get stealing.

2. Reading helps you discover your jam

Imagine that you grow up reading nonfiction books. Your teachers encourage you with biographies of presidents and stories about the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall, and the Great Pyramids of Giza. You soak it all in.

And then one day, on a whim, you pick up a glittering book with a mermaid on the cover. And that’s it—you’ve found your sweet spot.

You’ve opened the door to an entirely undiscovered subgenre that you never even knew existed, and you’re absolutely in love with it.

A few weeks into your mermaid binge, you get an itch. You have an idea—what if…? And you’re off. You’re swimming. (Heh.) You’re officially writing a mermaid novel.

It’s a bit of a silly example, but what I’m trying to say here is that all of us have something we love, and some of us haven’t even discovered it yet. What if you spent your whole life without finding your mermaid book?

My sister stumbled upon Ray Bradbury and Markus Zusak and her writing underwent a dramatic transformation, patterned on the zany, sparse, hard-hitting writing style of these two zealots. And the thing is—the style works for her. It’s weird and strange but compelling, poetic, even.

What if my sister had never picked up The Martian Chronicles or The Book Thief? Her life and her writing would be sorely impoverished, I think.

When we read, and read widely, we find the things we love. We find our mermaid books. We find our passion and our fire to write.

3. Reading develops your taste

If you’re a reader, you can spot a poorly worded sentence or a sagging plot structure a mile away. And it’s because you’ve read enough books—the transcendental, the middling, and the just plain awful—to know what works and what doesn’t.

Every time you read a book, you’re practicing. Maybe not intentionally, but you’re absorbing everything—how the story makes you feel, whether or not the characters feel alive, if the words sing.

Don’t underestimate the power of sheer volume. Read enough books, and eventually you’ll start to say, “I could write better than that!” And it’s very possible that you can.

4. Reading exposes you to tropes and themes

When you read extensively in a particular genre (in my case, fantasy), you start to recognize familiar themes and tropes. You discover how each author approaches these tropes, whether they did so clumsily or subtly, and whether they adhered to time-old tradition or crafted something new. And you learn what makes up a good fantasy story.

Many beginning writers use these tropes like a crutch (I know I did—reading my writing from middle school is a case study in horrible fairytale cliches.) And that’s okay—when you’re starting out, you can rely on familiar tropes and themes to craft your story.

And then you can surpass them. If you’ve been a student of your genre for years, then you’ll know when to employ tropes and when to shatter them.

A mark of a masterful author is how well they handle tropes, especially to confound their readers’ expectations. Read enough books, and you’ll learn how to navigate common themes like a pro.

5. Reading develops empathy

Authors have to be able to, as Atticus Finch says, “climb into [a person’s] skin and walk around in it.” We have to be able to understand our characters, especially those that are radically different from us.

And one way to become more empathetic is to read.

Numerous studies have found that reading fiction can increase your capacity for empathy and understanding.

Upon hearing this news, bookworms everywhere shrugged and said, “Well, duh.”

When you live and breathe with characters for 100 pages or more, something happens, something alchemical. You see into another person’s head. You hear their thoughts, slip into their skin, eat their food, sleep in their bed, feel their pain.

Reading gives us unprecedented access into the experiences and worldviews of those who are separate, different, apart, other. When we read, we strengthen our empathy muscle. And as authors, there’s nothing more important for developing complex, three-dimensional characters.

Conclusion

I may be preaching to the choir here. Most people who want to be authors are already predisposed to love reading and books. If that’s you, then take this as your gentle reminder to close your laptop and pick up a book instead. (Curse you, Netflix, for so many hours frittered away!)

If you want to write, here’s the simplest advice I can give you: read.

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