Why Great Writers Read

Every once in a while, I hear a writer say something like, “I don’t need to read. I’m too busy writing to read.” Stephen King would have something to say to this, but I keep quiet. Writing is hard enough. I don’t want to make it harder.

For me, though, reading inspires, instructs, and helps me connect with other authors more than any other habit.


Photo by Rick Siedal

Here are three things I’ve noticed about reading’s relationship to writing.

1. Reading Inspires

In an interview with the Paris Review, Maya Angelou said:

I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, ‘Okay.’ I remember that, and I start to write.

Reading inspires writing. It always has. Writing is a way to say “thank you” to the authors who have touched our lives

Writing can also be an act of rebellion against the way our favorite author’s saw the world. Martin Amis said of his father, Kingsley Amis, “When my father started writing, he was saying to older writers—for instance, Somerset Maugham—it’s not like that. It’s like this.”

Whether in gratitude or rebellion, reading is fuel for your writing.

2. Reading Instructs

In an interview with Charlie Rose, the late David Foster Wallace said, “The way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I want as a reader.”

The more I read, the better my sense for how to craft stories. I understand my characters better. Reading teaches us how to write. Reading shows us the possibilities of language. Sometimes, reading even challenges us to write something better than what we’re reading.

When you read writers you admire, read slowly and carefully. Ask, “What was he trying to do when he wrote this? How did she craft this sentence? Why does this create such a powerful emotion in me?”

3. Reading Connects

I have a few friends who are writers, and whenever they write a book, I try to read it. I know what it’s like to put my heart and soul into ink and pieces of paper and have no one I know read it. I also know what it’s like when a friend tells me, “I read your book. It was great!”

Before I interview a writer, I try to have some familiarity with the books they’ve written. I may not read everything they’ve written, but I’ll read something. I do it because I want them to know I understand them, that I care.

For writers, reading is about relationship. These other authors, they’re our friends, our co-laborers, our kin, whether we know them or not, whether they’re dead or alive. By appreciating the work they do, we appreciate ourselves.

To Be a Great Writer

To be a great writer takes time. I understand you’re busy, that you may not have two or three hours a day to read. That’s fine. You won’t hear any guilt tripping or condemnation from me. Life is hard. Why make it harder?

However, if you want to be a great writer, you will have to find time to read. Philip Roth talks about his writing habits:

It’s work. Just endless work. There isn’t time for any bullshit. I just have to work all the time, very hard, and cut everything else out.… I write from about ten till six every day, with a hour out for lunch and the newspaper. In the evenings I usually read. That’s pretty much it.

How many hours do you spend reading per week? How has your reading empowered your writing?

In the next lesson, we’ll talk about how to get the most out of your reading. Click here to continue.

  • Audrey Chin

    I can spend all day reading… but it’s mostly lazy enjoy myself reading where I hope to absorb the craft by osmosis. Since joining the course, I’ve been reading to critique. That’s so much harder. And I’ve improved so much as a writer just because of this!

    • Mirelba

      And yet, I think that some of the craft is absorbed through osmosis. I am a voracious reader. There may be times when I’m too overwhelmed to read, and then I’ll make up for it by going on a binge. And somehow, a lot of the way of doing things gets absorbed and then used in our own writing. That is not to say that we can’t learn more by critiquing, it’s just saying that there’s something to the osmosis as well…

      • Ann Stanley

        I love to read, but I have to admit that I find it difficult to slow down enough to pay a lot of attention to craft. Critiquing has helped me slow down a little, but probably not enough. Even on a second reading, I can’t seem to put the brakes on and pay attention to detail! I sure hope I’m absorbing by osmosis.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lisa.peers Lisa Peers

    I probably read 30-60 minutes a day. I read a lot of magazines – everything from Esquire to Entertainment Weekly – and am trying to get in a book or two a week as well. The magazine writing has helped me with pacing and word choice: they have to encapsulate their stories in a few pages (or paragraph) and keep my interest or I’ll flip ahead.

    I often have a hard time finding fiction I enjoy because 1) it points out how far I have to go as a writer and 2) “literary fiction” is often really, really, really depressing. Just as I finished the first draft of my first novel (about an aging rock star), a bunch of rock-themed novels got a lot of press (even a Pulitzer). I didn’t want to read any of them because it was too intimidating. A coach finally convinced me to read them because that way I’d know about who I’d be “sharing a bookshelf with.” And as it turned out, it was strangely reassuring. I realized they were very good books about a topic I write about, too, but none of them were my book. Most of them were depressing; that wasn’t what I wanted to create. None of them had my style. And, I felt like I could earn a couple of inches of space on that same bookshelf with my own book.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      True. Literary fiction does have a tendency to explore the sad parts of life. I wonder why that is?

      That’s so cool about your experience reading similar novels. I’ve found the same.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lisa.peers Lisa Peers

        I think there’s a widely held assumption that tragedy is more artistically worthy in any art form: when was the last time a comic role garnered a Best Actor or Actress Oscar? (Then again a lot of funny scripts have won Best Screenplay … maybe I’m overgeneralizing.) Sorrow is also a ready source of conflict and resolution: the journey becomes feeling better, or coping. It’s trickier to have a generally happy person and have the story be compelling.

        As they say, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

    • Audrey Chin

      Lisa, I like what you say about having to read other “famous” books in our genre. It is intimidating but we get better after that.

  • Debbie

    I read every day at work during lunch (30 minutes) – unless I’m going out to lunch with someone. I also read at work when I’m in between tasks for 5 – 15 minutes at a time. Depending on family obligations, I spend about an hour reading each night and an hour or so during the day on Saturday and Sunday.

  • http://thethoughtfulbuttonhook.wordpress.com/ Kate Hewson

    I read during quiet times at work (if I get any) and sometimes I read before I switch the light off at night, though usually I’m so tired by the time I get into bed that it doesn’t last long. However, now and again a book catches my imagination and attention so powerfully that I cannot put it down, and then EVERYTHING else falls to the wayside while I plough my way through it.

  • BernardT

    I don’t know about reading empowering writing, but I have definitely found that writing has made me into a much more critical reader. Some books that I would have been able to enjoy as a quick holiday-trash read are now definitely spoiled for me – although it is also encouraging in the sense that I think that I can do better than that!

    The other side of that coin is reading something really, really good – and being put off because I know I’ll never match that.

  • Sunny Henderson

    I’m not sure how much I read per week. It depends on how my own writing is going. There’s always a book or two queued up on my Kindle that I’ll turn to when I need a break.

    I read a lot in my genre (YA fiction, various subgenres) to see what else is out there and what readers connect with. Most of the time I am encouraged to strengthen my own writing to make it better–I can see where an idea or the execution of an idea fell flat or where dialogue left me in the dust. When I find a story that sucks me in without my inner editor taking over, that’s when I know I’ve found the magic. Those are the stories I want to emulate.