Do writers need to be avid readers?
Now here is a loaded question. The first time I heard the question was during my first year at university. Some poor girl dared to ask the question and admitted she didn’t like to read books but loved to write. The lecturer was a d**k and told her there was no point in her attending his class. I guess he failed Diplomacy 101. Mortified, the student left, spirit crushed.
Most writers will claim, yes, to be a great writer, one needs to immerse themselves in fiction. You need to know what’s out there and what works. Hone in on your skills. Fiction is a unique form of writing that goes beyond description and explores subtext and characters’ thoughts and feelings in a way other story mediums can not.
Blog post over, get off my website — please don’t. On the surface, I’ll agree with the above sentiment, but it’s only part of my conclusion.
Do writers need to be avid readers? The short answer is yes, and the long answer is no.
There are two elements at play to be a stronger creative writer. The first is the written word, and the second is the story.
Language is an Art
Reading words consistently is required to absorb the technical side of writing. The written word is communication, transferring ideas from writer to reader. Reading demonstrates how to construct strong and interesting sentences. Or how not to in some cases. Language is an art. Most of us read more than we realise; online, news and magazine articles, researching interests, back of boxes, instructions, subtitles, and so on.
The Avid Reader
Many of us don’t read novels. I know, the horror! Writing and reading novels are both time-demanding. As an adult, I prefer to play God and create my own stories — I pick up novels when I am going through a phase. However, I read at least a book a week between the ages of 9 to 18. A healthy dose of Sweet Valley. For those who don’t know “Sweet Valley High” was a book series dominating kiddie reading during the 80s and 90s. The series spawned several offshoots; “Sweet Valley Twins”, “Sweet Valley University”, and “The Unicorn Club” were the spin-offs I read religiously, but there were many others. Each series starred the dynamic night and day Wakefield twins from picturesque Sweet Valley at different ages in life. Safe to say these books, hundreds of them, rotted my brain. In the end, I wanted to see evil Margo make a comeback and put the Wakefield twins in a blender. Love affair over, Tannille grew up and started reading Anne Rice and Stephen King. Admittedly, I still feel joy when I see all those pastel covers, my childhood crack. I credit Sweet Valley for tricking me into reading and unlocking the magic, before then reading held no interest. My point is, I’ve done my time being a bookworm. I know other talented writers who don’t currently read novels, but they were avid readers at some stage in their life and will occasionally read a novel.
Some readers burn through one book a day. But how much are they taking in? Are they noticing details? There is a big difference between actively reading and passively reading. Reading a mountain of books without analysing the content will not help any writer become better at storytelling.
The best teachers are the stories we love and consume over and over again. They speak to us for a reason. They need not be high fiction. Our childhoods are filled with them. “Harry Potter” was devoured with gusto by a generation and studied in detail. My original copies of L. J. Smith’s “The Vampire Diaries” series aren’t in the best shape. Countless readings from cover to cover does that to a book and I’m a reader that doesn’t even crack spines (my paperback version of Stephen King’s “It” looks new). For years, I created “The Vampire Diaries” fan fiction in my head and dissected the story, every little detail. Team Damon all the way. Back then, there were only four books. As a fan, I wanted more. This is real reader engagement and I would argue to be a fantastic storyteller, writers need to engage with stories. As an adult, I’ve moved beyond head fan fiction (I have my own story worlds brewing), but I keep a journal and analyse novels and tv shows. I also translate any ideas for “fan fiction” into original stories. My process is for another blog post.
Stories Consumed on the Screen
Stories can also be found on the screen. No reading is required (although don’t knock subtitles). Like reading, watching a movie or tv show can be an active or passive experience for the viewer. Look at all the
nerdy passionate “Star Wars” fans. They analyse dialogue, story structure, world-building, characters, and write fanfiction, some even roleplay — this is engaging with the story. Online, there are debates over the “Game of Thrones” world and viewers are still trying to understand “Twin Peaks”. Dissecting stories is a powerful tool for writers because stripping stories apart allows us to understand the techniques used to tell the story. In turn, we can replicate techniques in our own writing.
Film theory has entered the realm of novel writing. Especially story structure. Analysing films and tv shows is beyond valuable for writers. What worked? What didn’t? What elements can you as a writer steal and recycle? Or my personal favourite for films/tv shows/ books that have a great premise but the story fails in the execution — how would I retell the story? What would I keep and what would I trash? “Game of Thrones” season 8…
Maybe I’m biased because I’ve always been a TV junkie and I’m a trained scriptwriter. At film school, the emphasis is on storytelling, rather than words. Many of my story ideas come from movies and tv shows. Consuming films and tv shows is arguably easier and quicker than novels. However, writers, no matter their skill level, will benefit from reading fiction from time to time and noting the author’s techniques and style. At the end of the day, it’s more about the quality of one’s reading, not the quantity.
Now, if you excuse me, I have to go watch…