Reading for Writers

One of the most common questions I hear asked by prospective writers is “what can I do to better my style?” Well, the obvious answer is to practice at it; write, write, then write a little more. Aside from that, it’s really quite simple: read, and read the sort of things you’d like to write.

The adage goes that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but to go even further, it’s an irrefutable truth that emulation is, to some extent, unavoidable. Our actions are a culmination of experience, and so what you’ve read often finds its way into what you write, whether you realize it consciously or not. Another way to explain it is this: the quickest way to influence your output is to channel your input. Have you ever noticed that long after putting down a book, your mind continues to circulate around what you’ve read? Even unconscious, I find H.G. Wells brings dreams of time travel and George R.R. Martin heralds a night of magic and swordplay.

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

-Oscar Wilde

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that you ought only read stories that follow along with the theme or genre of your writing; what’s important is to realize that the author’s style of prose lingers just as easily. You might find that Alexandre Dumas better inspires your sci-fi novel than Orson Scott Card, and that’s absolutely fine. There is no rule that all prose within a genre need be of the same style, and in fact I argue they should not.

One of Stephen King’s more famous quotes goes, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.” He approaches an idea contiguous to what I’ve already described – that the writer’s tools are found within reading. Although the subconscious assimilation of style is very real, it is just as important to actively assume the tools and techniques of better writers. For example, I know that I sometimes struggle with writing fluent dialogue. In order to overcome that weakness, I add to my reading list short stories and novels that contain brilliant dialogue so that I might see and study how authors like Joseph Conrad and John Steinbeck script what I cannot.

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

-Dr. Seuss

On that note, the idea of a reading list is an important one, and one that I’d push any writer to explore. It’s seductively easy to, time after time, take up the more convenient book and forever put off material that might truly help your style. With strict adherence to a reading list, you’ll suddenly find yourself denouement-deep in Charles Dickens where otherwise you’d be polishing off yet another Nora Roberts skin-flick. I wish I were able to give, like Stephen King, what I consider a “must-read” reading list for any author, but I honestly don’t believe such a thing exists. Every writer is different. Every style is different. Every genre is different. To some extent, perhaps, there are some classical novels that ought be read by all writers – if only to inform their heritage – but it’s beyond me to compile an exhaustive list. Even so, I have begun to assemble the beginnings of a writer’s reading list elsewhere on this website that I hope you’ll turn to if only to inform your own pursuit.

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. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.

-William Faulkner

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