Reading more is the secret to writing better

During a recent interview, a non-native English speaker asked me how I have time to write. Unfortunately I misunderstood the question – or maybe I was too tired to think clearly – so I answered something like the following: I read around 30 books per year, mostly when I’m on planes.

The interviewer seemed happy with my answer but later in the day, a colleague pointed out the oddness of my response. She asked me how reading so many books helped me become a better writer. Was I inspired to write based on what I read or do I write better by analyzing how others write?

Of course, neither of her suggestions are what I meant; I simply had made a mistake. However, the more I thought about my answer, the more I realized there was some logic in it. I am a better writer because I love to read. Writers who are much more successful than I am have come to the same conclusion.

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King makes the following claim:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around those two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

King doesn’t read to “study the craft” but rather because he enjoys it. Regardless, he does learn to write better by reading.

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing. […] Constant reading will pull you into a place where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

Coming back to the original question, I usually answer that I have time to write simply because I prioritize it over other activities like watching television. Not surprisingly, Stephen King has an even more compelling answer:

If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.  Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

The conclusion is pretty straightforward. Want to write better in the limited time you have? Read more.

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One Response to Reading more is the secret to writing better

  1. James Piacentino April 10, 2016 at 6:09 pm #

    A very close friend of mine shares the same method (read a lot, write a lot)….it’s an open channel for him. I admire his process and I feel there is another dimension/level that writers get to…..its flow. Just like musicians, I feel many writers actually “have to” write to keep an inner balance – similar to a musician – who “must play” to feel and find balance day to day, week to week. It’s a gift you all share and those who enjoy the body of work can only appreciate this process.

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