I have always heard that a writer should “Read everything [they] can lay hands on,” and otherwise consume media, TV, movies, etc., as much as possible. This was Michael Moorcock’s First Rule of Writing, and I’ve seen it plenty of other places. Even Stephen King advises this.
Lately though, I’ve been seeing advice saying this is NOT a good idea. You called this a “misguided cliché.”
Even though you went into some detail why, I would love more info about this. Why is this advice I’ve heard all my life so wrong?
Thank you,Dave L
Hi Dave L,
“Wrong” is too strong a word in this case. I think “inefficient” or “incomplete” would be better. It’s not that reading a lot will hurt you (though there are ways you could argue that, which I get to), it’s that simply reading in itself is not the most productive way to learn writing.
Often, the suggestion to read is even used as a replacement for actual learning and instruction. This is like telling architecture students to go look at a bunch of buildings instead of giving them useful instruction in the important principles of architecture. Sure, they may pick up some design principles after touring tons of buildings, but how much and how fast? And will they understand the problems the architect needed to solve when creating a building that works for all its use cases, or will they simply focus on principles that make buildings look better when they are touring them?
I’ve mentioned previously that instructors who use their gut to judge stories and don’t intellectually understand what they’re doing will use “read a lot” because it doesn’t require them to understand or teach principles. Stephen King is likely in this category. From what I know he emphasizes gut-based storytelling and has a literary mindset, which generally comes with a great deal of anti-intellectualism.
However, reading a lot doesn’t mean you are skipping out on other forms of instruction. The question then becomes how effectively you are using your time. And the problem with simply reading is that what you read is likely to go in one ear and out the next without your brain doing the work it needs to do to translate that reading into learning. This is why when you attend a traditional class, it isn’t just a teacher giving a lecture every day without any activities or homework. The students have to think about the material and practice to fully absorb and retain it.
So let’s say we have two beginning writers. Writer 1 reads ten books just the way they would read for enjoyment. Writer 2 reads only one book, but they constantly stop and think about how the book is making them feel and why. Are they bored because they don’t care if something bad will happen to the hero or because it seems really unlikely that something bad will happen?
Between those two writers, I would guess that writer 2 has actually learned more than writer 1 despite reading less. Writer 2 didn’t just read; they dissected the story and made their brain translate their experience into lessons.
If writer 2 has already received instruction, even better, because then they can use what they learned to analyze the book they’re reading. It makes much more sense for architecture students that are receiving instruction to go tour buildings and apply what they were taught in class than it does for someone to try to pick up the basics of architecture just by looking at buildings.
There are two arguments I know of that people can make for why reading is actually bad:
- Following the tenets of Romanticism, some writers don’t want to consume other stories because they are afraid they will pick up the ideas and repeat them in their own stories, thereby making their stories unoriginal and cliché. While it’s technically possible to make your work more original through isolation, I think isolating yourself is not only extremely difficult in the internet age, but also this tactic is just as likely to lead to writers using clichés because they don’t know they’re clichés. People do just come up with similar ideas.
- Many writers have trouble with what I might call “style pollution.” This means that after they read a work, they unintentionally start mimicking the style in their own writing. So if they’re writing otherworld fantasy and they read a hard scifi novel, their prose could morph into something that’s not only inconsistent with the beginning of their fantasy work but also inappropriate to their genre. In this case, it may be more practical to be careful about what you read when you’re in the middle of drafting.
Oren and I both consume lots of stories ourselves and analyze them to death. This is a big part of how we’ve gotten as far as we have. So reading is not bad, but simply telling people to read tons is overly simplistic and should not be used as a panacea for learning.