Reading is a topic I should spend more time with on this blog, but too often, I put more emphasis on writing. As important as honing my craft may be, reading plays a huge role in my creative process. Reading not only informs me, it guides my inner editor, and provides the framework for every writing project I undertake. I’ll try to keep this brief but here are three points to consider.
Reading shows me what other writers do.
That doesn’t mean I’ll copy what I see (although it can creep into my thought process). It does mean that I’m informed about my genre, and how other writers approach topics that I will write about. Sometimes other authors show me a great way to share an idea, describe a scene, or portray a character. I’ll take all the help I can get.
Reading is like working out for my brain. I exercise neurons by consuming information. Whether that is a copy of Critias & Timaeus, poems by Bronte, or the rambling narrative of On Writing, my writing will improve by feeding my brain a variety of subjects. Too often, I’ve see (or have been guilty of) staying in the comfort zone of my preferred genre. I wouldn’t understand with nearly as much depth or context without other writer’s works to give me context.
Reading shows me what not to do.
Equally important, other authors can show me things that don’t work. This is as true when I read outside of my genre (often even more so) than when I read the kinds of stories I write. Because craft transcends the type of story an author tells (or shows), it can be easier to see flaws (and successes) when I read a romance story, a detective thriller, or passages from a memoir.
A stumble in bringing a novel to conclusion, missed opportunities in a narrative, or an unsatisfying character arc are easier for me to see in someone else’s writing. In general, I’m too close to my work to be objective about it. I suppose that’s why the Gods invented critique groups. A fresh set of eyes has saved me from myself more times than I can count.
Reading fills my creative well with possibility.
The most obvious thing reading does is expand my horizons. I can see beyond what I can imagine through the works of other authors. There may not be any new thing under the sun, but I have yet to see every old thing either. Reading is the only way to appreciate the vast conglomeration of history, literature, and works of art that came before me. My paltry addition to that mountain of the written word will likely be less than a footnote, but I can’t hope to achieve that without knowing something about my predecessors.
The other facet of that is the pure joy of finding voices that resonate with me. Thoreau, Poe, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Strunk & White, and a thousand other voices that struck a chord with me live on in the words I string together. Without reading beyond my genre, no new chords can join the symphony in my mind. Just the thought of stilling those unheard voices fills me with sadness.
I may not write about it enough, but reading is just as crucial to writing as practicing foreshadowing, grounding your dialogue in the setting, or raising the stakes for your characters. Conflict is meaningless without context. One of the best ways I know to build those added layers is by being informed enough to weave them into my stories, whether by allusion or directly referencing works integral to modern literary culture.