Why Writers Need to Read More Widely

Reading is an integral part of being a writer, and reading widely can be incredibly beneficial.

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Reading, for writers, should be more than just a hobby. It is research, it is study, it is integral to writing. To learn how to direct films you need to watch a lot of films; to understand how to build a house you must study houses that have already been built; to know how to compose a symphony you not only dissect classic compositions, but also listen to your contemporaries and take in other musical influences.

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”

William Faulkner

Some writers state they do not want to be influenced, and what they read tends to seep into their writing. On the one hand, that is a fair comment, though on the other it is something of an excuse. Rather than reading and writing close together, writers should separate the two with time. Also—and this may sound harsh—if the story you are telling can be so easily swayed, and your writing voice altered without any resistance, perhaps what you are writing is not strong enough to stand on its own. Alternatively, just stop worrying about your first draft so much. When you are reading, you are you. When you are writing, you are the narrator—whether first, second or third-person—and so the influences on you should not influence them. Just write; you can clean it up later.

If, then, you decide to read, how can you decide what to read? I would suggest that whilst re-reading books can be very beneficial, as it allows you to take apart the writing and themes and characters, you should also be taking in different influences. It is easy to say you will read more, but much harder to say you will read more widely. Yet that is exactly what you should to.

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

Stephen King

Approaching reading as something that should challenge you allows you to increase the range of influences upon you as a creator. A wider range of books means stepping outside your comfort zone, your usual genres or form, your personal tastes even, and seeing writing from a new perspective. Otherwise you will be stuck in a comfort-zone bubble, and will gradually begin to assimilate the styles of your preferred writers, the tropes of the genre, and the clichés of the writing you are reading. Instead, apply outside influence and change the way you see things.

The challenge I have set myself this year is to read a book a month, and to use that as an opportunity to broaden the types and styles of writing I am absorbing. As such, I will be reading one of each of the following:

  1. A memoir;
  2. A poetry collection;
  3. A short story anthology;
  4. A novel;
  5. A book published this year;
  6. A book published the year I was born;
  7. A book published at least a hundred years ago;
  8. A book from a writer I have never heard of;
  9. A book that has won a prestigious award;
  10. A book that I pick up just because I like the cover;
  11. A book I have always told people I have read but never actually read;
  12. A book so outside my comfort zone I will feel embarrassed picking it up off a shelf.

In addition, it is my intention that at least a quarter of these books will be translations from foreign languages, to further the range of influences. At the end of the year, I plan to have read twelve books that are new to me, and am very much looking forward to seeing how this improves my own writing.

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Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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