Why the Most Important Thing You Can Do for Yourself as a Writer is Read

While desperately scouring the internet in search of the perfect bit of writing advice, you’ve probably seen more than one or two articles with this same or similar headline.

That’s because it’s true. As a writer, you do need to read – and you need to read a lot.

I don’t know about you guys, but I see a lot of tweets from writers that go something like this:

  “I can’t read anymore. Writing has taken the fun out of it. Everything I try to read sounds bad.”

Um.

Excuse me.

But… what?

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I heard the same thing while I was in college. My “fellow” English majors all claimed that their literary studies somehow “took the fun” out of reading for pleasure; they got into the program because they loved to read, and they came out hating it.

Even own mother, who’s love of reading and writing are the reasons I became an avid reader and writer, has told me that she “can’t read anymore” because she’s so cynical and can’t just enjoy things.

Maybe there’s some kind of epidemic in the publishing world I’ve somehow missed. An epidemic expanding beyond trade paperback mysteries and harlequin romances, a part of the publishing industry that makes millions of dollars from mass-producing stories that are all basically the same thing told over and over and over again.

Are there bad books out there? Of course there are. I’ve read plenty of them.

But are all books bad? Um, no. They’re not. If they were, then reading wouldn’t have reached the kind of popularity it has today.

If you are a writer and you find yourself falling into this category of being “unable to enjoy reading other books anymore,” I need to tell you something:

You sound like a pompous asshole.

I’m not saying you are a pompous asshole, but you sure sound like one.

Writers are egotistical hotheads. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. But the fact that you as a writer has gone so far as to basically say, “I can’t read other people’s books anymore because they’re not as good as mine” is garbage. And your writing will suffer for it – if it hasn’t already.

Reading is the most important weapon you have in your creative arsenal. And if you don’t do it, you are going to lose the war.

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In my last post, I discussed the important-yet highly convoluted nature of the “so what” factor, the thing that many beginning writers (myself included) miss.

To sum up that monster of a post, the “so what” factor is the thing in your story that connects your creation to the real world and in turn, makes people care about it.

Not all people.

It might not even be the majority of people.

But it at least provides some kind of relatability factor that will make someone go “oh, yeah. I get this now. Cool,” and continue reading.

I even semi-concluded a formula, part of which I said I would explain in a later post. The formula was as follows:

The “so what?” Factor = (World events + Writer’s reaction) x Overarching Narrative

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Known Narrative Formula

Spelled out: the “so what” factor equals (world events plus writer’s reaction to said events) multiplied by the overarching narrative divided by the narrative formula.

“Known Narrative Formulas” are the story formulas that are told again and again and again: the Hero’s Journey, Boy Meets Girl, Cinderella, Cautionary tales, etc. There are really only a few formulas in existence, and all of storytelling uses at least one of them. Why is this? Because they work. People like them. They’re coherent. They have a beginning, middle, and end.

Even if the ending is predicable, the original spin an author adds to the middle in order to get to that ending is what audience members go crazy for. ((NOTE: I include links of brilliant minds talking more about the known narrative formulas at the end of this post. If you need more of an in-depth review, you can look there.))

Those formulas construct the story-telling cannon, and being able to understand how they are used in each and every story you read will help you to further understand how you as a writer can use them in the telling of your own story.

This is also where you can begin to explore the theme of your work:

What is the message behind the story you’re trying to write?

What are you trying to convey to people about the state of our world by telling us of the struggles of a non-existent one?

And how does your story fit in with the body of work already out there in the world?

These are thematic questions, and without answers, you don’t have a story. At least, not yet anyway.

((ALSO NOTE: If you need to, you can go back and re-read this post by clicking here, because I’m not going to spend any more time on it than I have already.))

This post analyses the bottom portion of the formula, the “Known Narrative Structure” that you can only really learn about by reading.

And not just reading, but reading in two specific ways: reading as an audience and reading as a writer.

Many writers take a negative spin on the “reading as a writer” skill. They see words and sentence structure and plot and go, “ugh, this sucks and mine’s better,” and they put it down.

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Yeah, please don’t do that.

Am I telling you to only read books you hate? No, of course not. Don’t waste your time, there’s too much out there to explore.

But if you want to be a writer, a good writer, then you need to fall back in love with reading.

Reading as an audience:

Unfortunately, if you are one of the people who “can’t read anymore,” you’re going to have to figure out how to get out of that mindset on your own. Read in another genre than you usually do, go back and re-read old picture or chapter books you remember loving as a kid. Find it in your cold, dead heart to actually enjoy something again for once. Seek professional help if you have to. Whatever works, so long as you do it.

Reading as an audience is the first thing you should do when you’re reading another person’s work. It’s actually what you need to do when you’re re-reading your own work in preparation for revision, editing, publication, etc.

Read the book – whatever it’s subject matter may be – seeking pleasure, enjoyment, distraction. Get yourself into that euphoric state that hooked you on reading when you are a child, where everything falls away and it’s just you, the characters, and the action. Where you’re not even reading words anymore, but rather the events are playing out like a movie in your head.

Read for the purpose of falling in love, of learning something new, of feeling humored or scared or panicked or even angry.

Be an audience member. Because without an audience, then there is no story.

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Reading as a writer:

Now, step two. When you’ve finished the book or even just come out of that movie-in-your-mind stage, take a step back. This is where you can begin to analyze the story as not just a source of entertainment, but a work of human creation, of art.

Where in the narrative did you begin to care about the characters?

Why did you find yourself slowing down, becoming easily distracted?

Where did you find yourself holding the book closer to your face because you were so immersed in the action?

Where there any sentences you felt like you had to read over a few times?

Were there words being repeated again and again that were perhaps a little annoying or momentarily jarred you from the action?

What was the message you got out of the book, and was there a scene that lit your heart on fire with passion for “The Cause?”

Can you identify what known story formula this author chose to frame their plot and narrative?

How does the book work in its entirety? And if it doesn’t, then why not?

Take notes: write a goodread’s review, type of a blog post or even just jot stuff down in a personal journal. The answers to these questions about the finished, published, and probably profitable book in front of you will help you in your own writing.

Writers should always, always be open to learning from other writers.

After all, we are all we have. None of us are perfect. Sure, there are the Noble prize winners, the ones who go on to teach literature and writing at the “expert” level, but if those people feel they have achieved all that they possibly can as writers, then they are horribly mistaken. There is always more to learn.

Books are hard to write. They’re hard. They have lots of little moving pieces and parts, and even when we have it all laid out in front of us, there is always something we’ve missed: a character that’s underdeveloped, a plot point that is mentioned but not explored, a plot point that shouldn’t have been brought up or explored at all yet somehow takes up nearly half the book. You know how it goes.

And as writers, we usually love what we write. Even if we hate it, we love it. We created it, it’s something from our heads and our hearts. Therefore, we’re too close to it, and sometimes these make-or-break details are the things that we either don’t see or refuse to see because of our own obsessions and flaws.

But there is good news: there are millions and millions and millions of examples out there. Good ones, bad ones, ones it between. There are millions and millions of books out there that have writers behind them, writers just like you, who faced the same issues, who struggled with the same pitfalls and dents in there work.

And by golly, if you don’t think that access to these examples of how other writers found ways to tell the stories of their hearts, then you need to seriously re-consider picking up another hobby.

For more information on what the “known story formulas” are, check out these resources:

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Shape of a Story” Lecture

TedX Talk: The Mystery of Storytelling

The Originality Myth & The Importance of Story Scaffolding

Thanks for reading Again, this blog is written by a disgruntled writer, for disgruntled writers. I hope I’ve given you guys a push out of that slump we can all fall into. Remember: we do what we do because we love it, and if we find ourselves falling out of love with it, then we need to back-track.

Please follow, share, like, and/or leave a comment below. Are you in a reading slump? Have you been in one before? What was the book/book series that inspired you to write? Do you find yourself writing in a different genre than you read, or vice versa? I want to hear it.

Thanks, everyone! See you next week, where we’ll talk about the importance of having a support group as a writer, and what exactly I mean by “support group.”

R.F.

Published by Rebecca

Freelance content writer for eco-conscious businesses and non-profits. Lover of books, animals, and trees. YA fiction writer with THREE on-going WIPs.

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