Why you can only read so much

people-reading

Most of us can agree that frequent reading makes for good writing. It’s essential to read if you’re going to write and to do so often. The exception is people who say they’re readers and not writers although I doubt they’d make very terrible writers when they try to be. You can consume without creating, but you still learn about the process.

But how much does good writing rely on voracious reading? Granted, we read much more than we realize thanks to the Internet, but we seem to browse and scan more than we engage, which happens when we sit down with a book. Immersion and patience are important; we need both to craft meaningful writing. We also learn different patterns from reading prose or poetry than we do common web writing.

However, we could read forever and never set fingers to keys and earnestly compose. We can find style in the works of authors but not our own voice. Writing is an exploratory process that you can only learn about, not experience, when reading.

I can’t help but thinking of where we need to draw the line since the most common advice often conflicts with itself: “learn to write by reading” and “learn to write by writing.” Which is more true?

Listen to author Marilyn Singer’s answer, for example:

It may sound corny, but I always tell aspiring poets to read, read, read and write, write, write. I also tell them to observe the world around them, using all of their senses, and to do so with wonder and humor. And I advise them to listen to words and sentences and to pay attention to the kind of music they have.

You’re not going to “observe the world” with “all of [your] senses” when your nose is stuck in a book, but at the same time, Singer stresses the importance of “[listening] to words and sentences” and the “kind of music they have.”

The best practice seems to be a balance of reading and writing — of absorbing outside views and forming your own perspective through observation, contemplation, and imagination. Reading teaches you the music so you can make your own, but you have to take that tool and use it.

I find that reading other people’s work can refill the well of my own creativity when it runs dry, but it’s good to remember that you have your own voice and style that’s unique from everyone else’s. Take bits and pieces from your favorite authors and writers and assimilate them into your own writing, as that’s largely how we grow as writers. We listen to advice and heed example. Writing is about improving through practice; we build on layers of knowledge and understanding.

For your voice to be authentic and real, it can only ever be yours.

How much emphasis do you place on the interdependence between reading and writing?

2 thoughts on “Why you can only read so much

  1. For a post I wrote in March, I read interviews of five famous authors and each one of them talked about how much they read (particularly when they were kids). So, yes, great writers tend to be great readers. But, at a certain point, they have to start writing, probably while in the middle of reading one or more good books.

    1. Good point! Sometimes inspiration hits in the middle of a good book. Reading and writing don’t have to be exclusive; you can do both at the same time.

      And agreed — I’ve never heard of a writer who didn’t also read SOMEthing. :)

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