How to read If you want to write

Photo of a woman in bed surrounded by books

There is a great Stephen King quotes that reads, “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.” It’s one of my favorite quotes to haul out when I’m talking to new writers because it contains so much truth: if you are wanting to write a book, then you need to be reading books. This statement is often met with enthusiastic head nods and more than a few sighs. I get it – who has time to read when writing a book on the side? We barely have enough time in this insanely oversaturated world for our own thoughts, let alone the time to read and write.

But, I’m here to tell you why you need to read if you want to write a book, but also how to read.

Step One: Read for Structure

When you pick up a book, whether you are aware of it or not, you are training your brain. Each sentence, each chapter, each novel is actively teaching you as you go. And what is it teaching you? The structure and pacing of a novel. When you read excellent books, you are taking in silent lessons of plot, character and setting, and learning how to navigate those essential tools. For instance, when you pick up a Rainbow Rowell novel, you are saturated in character; characters that feel and breathe and live off the page. When you pick up a Blake Crouch or a Pierce Brown, you will get lessons in rapid-fire plotting that hurtles the reader forward, often leaving them breathless and turning the page faster than they’d like. When you pick up a V.E Scwab novel, you know you will lose yourself in a setting so vast and rich that you will swear you’re walking through it one sense at a time. When you read these books, you are teaching yourself these tools without realizing it, like an IV of knowledge pumping straight into your brain. And isn’t that the best way to learn – unconsciously, while enjoying yourself?

Step Two: Read for Inspiration 

Who among us hasn’t read a book and thought, “I wish I wrote that.” It happens to me every time I pick up Ann Patchett and Patrick Rothfuss. There is something both intimidating and freeing about losing yourself in the creativity of another person. However, there is a danger to leaning out of great writing due to your own insecurities. The key is to instead lean in to find inspiration. Don’t take ideas: take in their talent. Let the gorgeous nature descriptions in Where the Crawdads Sing fall over you like water. Let the terrifying creep of Neil Gaiman curl around you like a vine. Let them inspire your own, distinct voice. Don’t copy; create. Ask yourself what you can take away from them. When you open yourself up to inspiration, you open yourself up to pure creative growth. “All art is derivative” may be true, but I prefer, “To be inspired is great, to inspire is incredible.” Most writers would be thrilled to know that they inspired other works of greatness. If that isn’t the goal of the artist, what is?

Step Three: Read for Competition 

Here’s the trickiest of the four. Reading for competition is both hard and necessary, especially when it comes to your particular genre. For example, if you are writing fantasy, not only do you need to have read the classics inside your genre (Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe) but you also need to be keeping up with the new, hot books in your genre. Why? For one, you need to be familiar with terms that apply to your genre, and two, you need to know your competition. If someone has published a book that is eerily similar to yours, then you are going to be out of luck trying to sell a novel that’s already been written to a new publisher. Another reason is trends. Usually by the time a trend is “hot” the trend is over. Publishing is already two years behind real life, and if you are trying to write to a trend (say, vampire fiction), you are behind the ball. Because of this, it’s important to keep an eye on your competition to be able to track trends. However, who’s to say that you won’t find inspiration and structure in those books? You are killing two birds with one stone. The extra good news is that reading a book is never wasted time.

Step Four: Reading as Focus

For most of us, writing a book takes a very long time. It’s a game of years, not weeks or days. Reading books prolongs your ability to focus and to tune your brain to the written word. In the age of social media and instant gratification, being able to sit down and read a book is a gift, a skill. And you will need that skill to write your book, that sustained concentration, ambition and patience. It’s not a natural skill; it’s a learned one.

So there you have it – reading to write, writing to read; it’s a concentric circle that goes around and around, feeding and nurturing the other. It’s the easiest way to train your brain to write, more so than any degree or certificate. I love the look on writer’s faces when I tell them if they have been reading, they have already been doing the most important thing to get their brains ready to write.

Truly, reading is the gift that never stops giving.