To Be A Good Writer, You MUST Read

Posted · 31 Comments

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ~ Stephen King

Good writing

Reading good writing can teach you about structure, dialogue, pacing, plot, using symbols & imagery to convey a point, you name it. It makes you ask questions like:

  • How did the author get the dialogue to feel so authentic?
  • What did he do on the page to make me feel so attached to the characters?
  • What did he do with the pacing that I can’t put this book down?
  • What word choices made the story feel alive?
  • What did he do structurally that made this book so engaging?

Reading brilliant writers gives you something to strive for, a kind of if-they-can-do-it-so-can-I attitude. It also keeps you humble; there are always some stunning writers out there who are better than me. Plus, on the days when the writing’s tough, a beautifully written book can provide inspiration and motivation, at least for me.

Bad writing

Reading bad writing can teach you, too, if you ask yourself questions as you go along:

  • Why does that dialogue sound stilted?
  • Why is this chapter dragging?
  • Why don’t I care about the characters?
  • Why doesn’t the language flow?
  • Why did I put the book down halfway through the first chapter and not care to pick it back up?

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”  ~Stephen King

All of us want to be great writers. All of us, well everyone I know personally, started out a bad writer. Reading is the way that you get better. That and a lot of writing, too.

Do you believe that to be a good writer you must read? Please feel free to share your thoughts & experiences in the comment box below.

31 Responses to "To Be A Good Writer, You MUST Read"
  1. Brandon says:

    So very true. I’m getting back to this very thing now. I decided to start reading James Patterson recently. I didn’t realize he did cross-genre work. So far, so good.

    There is a little drawback to this, though. After I started writing, I started being a little overly critical. I actually had to put down an author that I normally enjoyed reading! I usually like Michael Crichton’s work. Pirate Latitudes, however, I’m having a time of this one…

    • Hi Brandon! I haven’t read any Patterson, but I do like to read that genre because it teaches you about pacing and keeping a reader turning pages. Overly critical of your own writing or of the book?

      • Brandon says:

        The book. I struggled just getting through the first chapter. I can only assume someone else is publishing it for him as a previously unreleased work. It’s terrible, though.

        To be honest, I rarely get overcritical of my own writing. I’m sure I will soon, though as I am refocusing on my book writing rather than prompted short stories. We’ll see.

        • I’ve read books, too, that I didn’t bother after the first chapter. I used to give things more of a shot, but once I had kids & my reading time went way down, I just don’t bother anymore if it doesn’t catch my interest (although I do tend to analyze why I didn’t like it so as not to do it in my own work :D). That’s fantastic that you don’t get overcritical of your own writing. I think a lot of writers do & it can be a real hinderance.

  2. Well said, Shelli!

    I find that my writing tends to mirror my favorite authors though not at the same level of expertise. It is my belief this is natural in much the same way as our speech patterns tend to follow those of our parents, relatives and friends.

    I strongly recommend Stephen Kings, book On Writing for anyone considering a writing career.

    • Hi Rich! *waves* I think that’s very true what you said about mirroring, especially when we start out & don’t know our own voice very well. Great recommendation; I’d recommend his book, too. Cheers!

  3. Deeone Higgs says:

    Absolutely Shelli! I know for myself there is still room for me to grow as a writer, but I also know that I have grown as a writer; much of that growth has come from reading other writers material, books, articles, and blog content.

    “If a person wants to be a writer, they must write and read as though their life depended on it… because quite frankly, it does.” I don’t know who actually stated that, but it has always stuck with me since starting this journey. Great post, my friend.

    Also, thank you and Rich for the recommendation! That’s going on the “Must Read” list, for sure. 🙂

    • Hi Deeone! *waves wildly* It’s always awesome to see you! I know my growth as a writer & a blogger has come from reading other people’s work. I didn’t know much at all about blogging when I started, but I read other people’s posts and learned what I liked, what I didn’t like, what worked, etc. I LOVE that quote & am going to print it out and tack it up in my writing room. King’s book is well worth your time. So is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Cheers, my friend!

  4. Peter says:

    I agree with you. I used to read a lot of John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer. I learnt a lot of stuff from those two. They each have their own way of describing characters and scenes. Then I came across Khaled Hosseinis ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ and ‘The Kite Runner’. He describes character that they almost jump out of the page. It is so sincere and honest that you actually experience the characters and you can forget that they are fiction. I highly recommend his books.

    • Hi Peter! *waves* Grisham certainly can teach pacing. I loved both of Hosseini’s books for that very reason, especially The Kite Runner, because the characters were more like living, breathing people. 🙂

  5. Richard Alan says:

    I agree with you completely. I have learned so much from reading many authors, and reading blogs also. I highly recommend Stephen King’s book “On Writing”. Also, Sol Stein’s book, “Stein on Writing” is excellent.
    I used to force myself to read to the end of any book I started. Then I decided my time was too valuable to waste on books I’m not enjoying. If the author doesn’t rope me in during the first chapter, I move on to another of the many books on my TBR list.
    Thanks for a great blog.
    Richard

    • Hi Richard! *waves* I’ve never heard of Stein’s book but I’ll take a look at it. That’s a great lesson, too, about hooking people early on. You’ve got one chapter to do it or else a lot of readers will move on to the next story. 🙂

  6. Sandy Coelho says:

    I agree, and it is one of the reasons I read you! Also your writing completely draws me in. 😀 I think King’s ‘On Writing’ and Lamb’s ‘The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children’ are two of the best, practical books on the craft. The principals in Nancy Lamb’s book may be applied to all writing, between the two there is the bulk of information any writer starting out will need for reference. Of course, this is not to say do not read others. Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’ is a classic which I love, but King’s and Lamb’s gave me more food for thought.

    • Hi Sandy! *waves like crazy* Awww, you’re sweet. Thanks for the fabulous compliment. Made me smile. 🙂 I have never heard of Lamb’s book, but I will check it out. I’ve heard that writing for children is actually harder than writing for adults, to do it well anyway. Cheers!

  7. Sandy Coelho says:

    Hi Shelli *waves back* LOL Hope your holiday weekend was enjoyable. Glad I made you smile, you do that for me, whenever I read your work 😀
    Yes, Nancy Lamb’s book was one I read years ago and I find I have checked in with her many times since. Writing for children CAN be hard. You would think it would be the opposite, but it wasn’t for me 😀
    Catch up with you later! Ciao xo

    • I had a great weekend, thanks. Hope you did, too. I haven’t attempted a children’s book but I read that Madeleine L’Engle (who won awards for writing children’s books) once said that it was harder to write for kids. xoxo

      • Sandy Coelho says:

        We did! My children’s book was only 1200 words but it was the most difficult 1200 words I have ever written, and being a first I think I had bit off more than I could chew. I suspect you would pen a beautiful children’s story – I would buy it! 😀 Have a great week Shelli xoxo

        • I’m glad to hear it. Awww, thanks for the compliment. I may tinker with one eventually. I’ve written goofy little stories for my kids (one about a pat of butter that came alive!) but nothing of real substance. You have a great weekend, too. Cheers, darlin.

  8. Paul Denni says:

    Yes I totally do. I agree with Rich Weatherly above that you begin to imitate the authors you love. I’ve also heard it recommended that you TRY to imitate other authors, and eventually, your own style will emerge. This seems to be a good way to get the ball rolling for a writer just starting out. Thanks for the post. I read “On Writing” a couple of years ago but it’s about time to read it again – so good!

    • Hi Paul! *waves* In grad school, we actually had a class (an entire semester) where we imitated other authors’ writing styles. It was a great lesson as it taught about process and voice and structure, all kinds of things. You learned what you liked, what you didn’t, and like you said, your own style emerged out of it. If you don’t know where to start, I agree that’s a great way.

  9. tomdharris says:

    Hi Shelli, spot on, as usual 🙂 I make time to read a book every weekend. I tend to stay in my YA genre, with the odd exception for authors who inspire me with their writing and concepts. The only reason I do that is because I know I’m going to learn something. It’s purely selfish at the end of the day 🙂 Me, me, me – I know! I know! I read to hone my craft, to see what other writers do well and not so well. It’s always easier to spot the good, the bad and the ugly in others work as you’re often too wrapped up in your own. So, it makes sense that the more you read the more you’ll learn and improve your prose, grammar, structure and smelling – see what I did there 😉 sorry. Some cracking comments on here too from Paul, Rich, Sandy, Peter, basically everyone about mirroring other writers. I bought a book called Write Like The Masters which was so interesting, delving into Dickens, Maugham, Salinger, Dick and Stephen King to name a few. So, I agree with the comments above that your writing is a sum of your reading experiences but we each have our own style and we should give ourselves credit, because most of that which sets us apart is down to the decisions we have made and the people/writers that we have decided to become. If we all read a chapter aloud right now, no two styles would sound the same. I always find that amazing!

    • Hi Tom! *waves* Oh, I’m so jealous of you ~ time to read a book every weekend. I used to do that before kids. 🙂 It’s true what you say that it’s easier to spot the strengths & weaknesses in other people’s work, but spotting them will, hopefully, help you use (the good) or avoid (the bad) in your own work. I love this: “most of that which sets us apart is down to the decisions we have made and the people/writers that we have decided to become.” Very true. The last line about no two styles made me think of a housing development where my friend lived and every house was a mirror copy of the one next door, all white with the same style outside. I remember thinking how boring it was. I’m glad, too, that we all have our own voices, that there are lots of different stories/styles to look at; otherwise, how boring would that be? Cheers!

  10. Shelli, thanks so much for the add of FB. I have added you on Twitter as well and shared this wonderful blog and advice! The types of books I like to read are the types of books I like to write…so I see exactly what you are saying. I don’t have a lot of time for both but just trying to do what God leads me to do. Looking forward to reading more of your blogs!

    • Hi Frances! *waves* Thanks right back to you for FB & Twitter. It’s fabulous to see you on my blog, too. Thanks for the lovely comment. Makes me smile. 🙂

  11. farouk says:

    that’s so right shelli
    though i believe there is a lot of room for improvement for me still i managed to improve my writing skills by a great deal through reading 🙂

  12. Ryan Casey says:

    Great post Shelli!
    I feel reading is just one of those crucial subconscious lessons every writer should immerse themselves in. As authors, we are writing books after all, so it should only be natural to want to consume the media we love.

    • Hi Ryan! *waves* Thanks for the fab compliment. Made me smile. 🙂 Reading other writers’ work can provide some of the best writing lessons out there, IMO.

  13. Amy says:

    Hi Shelli!
    This is an area where I certainly can improve. I LOVE to read, but stay so busy with other pursuits that I can’t manage to read as much as I’d like. Thanks for the reminder that in order to be a top-notch writer, one must be a voracious reader. Cheers!

    • Hi Amy!

      I LOVE to read too! My reading level went WAY down though when I had kids, but I still love to read and still make sure I get some reading in every day. Reading absolutely will improve your writing, of that I have no doubt. Cheers right back!

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