On Writing and Reading

They say, if you want to be a writer, read. This is, of course, true. You’re not going to get a feel for the language if you’re not experiencing it through the lens of people who are much better at putting it together than you are.

Fitzgerald, Austen, Tolkien, Kerouac. Salinger, Twain, Melville, Wilde. And so many more. There’s a reason that many of the sentences considered the most beautiful in the English language were written by them.

The curves of your lips rewrite history. Oscar Wilde

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. F. Scott Fitzgerald

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. Jack Kerouac

She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together. J.D. Salinger

Wow.

(In the words of the journalist from Newsies, just give me some time. I’ll be twice as good as that six months from… never.)

And I’m sure you’ve also heard to read what you write. This is, of course, also good advice. You’re not going to learn how to write informational articles if you’re reading nothing but high fantasy. And you’re not going to learn how to write a young adult novel if you do nothing but read troubled modern lit writers.

But I’d like to take it a step farther. I’d like to add to this litany of good writing advice my own little piece that I don’t see nearly often enough.

Be careful what you read while you write.

I am very much an advocate for reading what makes you happy. I openly enjoy the Twilight books, YA romance is often my go-to, and I’ll defend high fantasy to anyone with half an ear, glazed look or no. But. In the same way that you are what you eat, you are what you read.

No matter what you’re trying to write, it will end up taking on characteristics of what you’re currently reading. There’s a whole section of my senior thesis that reads in Scott Lynch’s quick, choppy, hard prose. And there’s also a section that reads in Stephanie Perkin’s easy, open, simpler style. And another that reads like any number of the ancient, pretentious poets I had to read for classes. It’s all me—but it’s also heavily influenced by what I was reading.

It’s an inevitable process of events. You take on the characteristics of the people you spend the most time with. Studies have shown that. Naturally, your writing also takes on the characteristics of the books you read. So.

If you want to write good poetry, you’re not going to get any better reading tumblr poetry. If you want to write the next great American novel, popular book club books won’t help. If you want to write high fantasy, bad YA fantasy isn’t going to get you there. If you want to write personal essays, Buzzfeed articles won’t cut it. You get the point.

If your goal is to become a better writer—of any sort—you’re not going to get there reading mediocre books. You just can’t.

So by all means, read what makes you happy. But also, if you’re trying to make it as a writer, read a healthy dose of books commonly accepted as good, books in the genre you’re trying to write. Don’t contribute to the vast array of bad literature out there that exists because people thought they could write without respecting the finer points of the craft. Do your homework. Read.

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2 comments

  1. I SO AGREE that it’s important to read “good writing” when one hopes to write. I’d argue that reading the less successful work can be good for your writing too, because study of its mechanics can show you why it didn’t work for you, and that can teach you something, too.

    1. Oh for sure. Though, I don’t know that I’d ever suggest to someone to seek out bad writing during the creative process, even to analyze, lest your own writing take on the characteristics unconsciously. Analyzing why books are bad if you do come across them, though, is definitely a good and helpful process.

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