What is the most common advice professional writers give to those just starting out? If you want to write, you must read lots of books. Sometimes it’s the only piece of advice given. Usually, there’s no expanding on why or how or what. In interviews on podcasts or in magazines, they repeat it over and over: If you want to write, you must read. As Nike says, “Just do it.”
I think everyone should read all the time, constantly, every day, whenever they can. But, I find this advice given to new writers to be almost totally useless and enormously frustrating. Over the years, I kept wondering how this metamorphosis was going to happen? Magic? Osmosis? I’ve been reading and writing for most of my life.
I’ve read many classics, hundreds if not thousands of novels, literary criticism, etc. In addition, I’ve been reading books about writers for at least the last 20 years. Natalie Goldberg? Check. Brenda Ueland? Check. William Zinsser? Check. Anne Lamott? Check. Stephen King? Check. You get the idea.
In dedicating my energies and passions to becoming a professional writer comparatively late in life, here is what I’ve learned:
Reading does not teach you to be a writer any more than sitting in a chair teaches you to be a carpenter.
The more chairs you sit in, the more you know what you like, which species of wood visually appeals to you, the curve of the seat or angle of the back you find most comfortable. You may even come to recognize various styles of famous furniture makers and the historical periods in which they worked.
But none of this makes it possible for you to physically build your own chair.
Despite all the novels I’ve read (famous, critically acclaimed, accessible and obscure), it took completing my own first draft for me to realize I knew nothing about writing a book.
A novel is a specific thing with infinite variations. All of my English and American Lit classes taught me how to find symbolism and recognize a theme but they did not teach me how to build a scene, reveal character, build tension or weave in backstory.
A writer needs tools and the knowledge to use them which is why writing is often compared to craftsmanship.
To build a functional, aesthetically pleasing chair you need to learn how a chair is constructed. You need to know the materials and tools required and you need instruction and practice in using the tools. Is this wood strong enough? Should this be joined with pegs, biscuits or glue? What saw blade works best?
Now, after you’ve got the basics down and haven’t chopped off any fingers, you can loosen up. You can improvise, play with shapes and materials and ask what happens if you try this instead of that.
I’ve learned it’s the same for writing a book (story, article, essay). You need to take them apart and watch someone putting them together. You need classes in construction, or a manual on story structure. You need to know what parts make up the whole. And not just one class or one practice session.
The truly great writers aren’t purposely leading us astray when they simply tell us to read more. They’re just not expounding on what they mean by “read a lot of books.” And I really wish they would.
You have to read to know your market or genre to know what has become trite or cliché. Most importantly, you have to read to find out what you enjoy, what books you’d love to write. You should also learn to read like a writer at times, looking for how favorite novelists pulled off a certain point of view or climax.
Reading is a different skill. Reading is a joy. Reading is entertainment. And, yes, reading can teach. Reading will enrich your vocabulary and, as you learn more craft, will expose an endless array of possibilities in your own work.
If you want to write, you must apprentice yourself to the craft of writing. Sitting in a lot of chairs never made anyone a carpenter and reading a lot of books never made anyone a writer.
Click on any of the above authors for some of my favorite books on writing.