You need to read if you want to write

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

—Stephen King

Too often, a fledgling writer will acquire the mindset of “no use reading, that’s just wasting time when I should be writing! ” Or it will go something like that. While the logic is there, this mindset can seriously damage any chance of improving your writing. Our ability to write stems very directly from our ability to read. If anything, if you want to be a novelist, you should be reading more. You should be reading in your genre, but also exploring other options, other avenues of the trade, other windows into the literary world.

This happened to me. No doubt many who are reading this will be free from this mindset, because—well, you are reading, after all. So consider this more of a reflection on my earlier self, and a warning to all those who don’t think reading is a necessary part of writing.

This mindset’s even more harmful counterpart is something as follows: “Reading will disadvantage my writing skills, since I’ll be inclined to copy the writer’s style or prose!” This is ridiculous on all accounts, so if you do have this version of the mindset, do yourself a favor and toss it straight into Mount Doom. The novel industry is built and sustained on remixes of previous authors’ styles. Now, you might respond telling me how important it is for each individual story to be unique. And you’d be right, to a certain extent. But consider the “hero’s journey” plot archetype for a moment. Countless fantasy novels have adapted this archetype into something new. Hundreds. The Lord of the Rings was not the first, nor was it the last. Joseph Campbell theorized that every story, regardless of genre or intention, fit into the monomyth cycle. So clearly many successful stories have obvious things in common.

The same is true for character and more niche plot archetypes. Plot types such as the “heist” have been used many times throughout literature and film. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series directly tackles this archetype in a modern fantasy setting. Similarly, character “band archetypes”—The Hero, the Lancer, the Heart, the Big One, and the Smart One—have been utilized countless times throughout storytelling. Reading books can help to inspire your characters, and can help you to create unique people as “hybrids” of those already existing. Very rarely will an author create a whole new type of character; there’s nothing wrong with remixing common types. (I’d highly recommend this video if you’d like to learn more about the five-man band. The Jungian Character Archetypes are also particularly of note.) Try merging plot and character archetypes you enjoy reading with new genres or unique settings.

Reading is important.

Professional authors seem to agree. Chances are if you look at an author’s background, you’ll find a fascination with, or at least a dedication to, reading books in their genre. And it’s not only authors. Successful people never stop reading in their craft. Studies show that reading is the #1 most important thing you can do for your mind, or at the very least it’s seriously up there. No matter where you go in life, reading is essential. Don’t underestimate it. If you’re a writer, it’s automatically more than something you’re doing “just for fun.”

When I had the mindset (and yes, I do still encounter it sometimes), more often than not I was using the excuse of “it’s taking time away from writing” to go procrastinate and ultimately do neither. This is a danger that accompanies the mindset, and one that can be difficult to escape. However, it is essential for a writer to find a balance between the two. Ideally, set up times each day to read and write. These should be separate, and can be as short as a half and hour each. While I’m not one to try and enforce strict time limits and expectations, this strategy can be enormous in helping to remove you from a habit of procrastination.

There are some thoughts on the topic of reading as a writer. Please feel free to let me know if you disagree. Either way, what are you reading? Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? If so, I wouldn’t recommend substituting out all your reading time. Just a thought.

Nai aurelya nauva mára! 

—J.

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