Many people think the secret to writing is – logically enough – writing. The same mantra gets repeated over and over and over: Sit down and write. You don’t have to brainstorm, you don’t have to outline, you don’t even have to think about what you are going to write. Just write.
That’s actually pretty good advice. But it’s incomplete. There’s another extremely important aspect to writing that sometimes gets overlooked.
It might seem counterintuitive at first. “If I’m reading, I can’t be writing!” Reading takes up precious time when you could be penning the Next Great American Novel™. Why bother reading someone else’s thoughts when you could be writing your own?
The effect of reading
Reading is an activity that goes beyond simply looking at words. In 2006, a study published in the journalNeuroImage reported that words trigger the sensory parts of the brain outside the small area that identifies letters on the page. Through a battery of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests, scientists discovered that when you read words like “coffee” or “cinnamon,” the olfactory cortex in your brain become activated as well.
A more recent study at Emory University showed that a similar phenomenon occurs with metaphoricaldescriptions, such as “she has a velvety voice” or “he has leathery hands.” Additional studies have shown similar links between reading words related to tactile (touch) senses, motion, action and other physical sensations.
So what does that mean?
It means that reading gives your brain a workout. That’s right, when you’re sitting on the couch reading a good book, you’re not just being lazy. You’re actually in the middle of an intensive exercise session!
In my own experience, I’ve noticed that reading both helps me discover new ideas and helps me refine my own ideas. It even helps me come up with ideas about what to write next.
(Example: I got the idea for this by reading a New York Times article about the studies mentioned above.)
Don’t just take it from me
Scientific studies are all well and good, but we all know that the scientific world and the “real” world sometimes seem like two different places.
However, many writers have testified to the impact of reading on their work. If you’re still on the fence about how much reading will help your writing, maybe an appeal to some authorities will help you.
J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” that “I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read.” By cultivating his love of reading such stories, Tolkien went on to write his extremely popular stories about Middle-earth — thus creating an entire genre as the father of modern fantasy!
Stephen King has described his writing style as “diarrhea of the typewriter.” In his quintessential book On Writing, King writes, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” It’s hard to argue with one of the most prolific writers alive today.
But perhaps Dr. Seuss‘s straightforward logic is the most clear cut example of them all: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” And the more places you go, the more you’ll have to write about!
What to read
Assuming I’ve convinced you that reading is an important part of writing, the next question to ask is:
What should you read?
Now, I’ll admit, I haven’t found any scientific evidence that reading one thing is better or worse than reading another. However, I’ll lay out a few guidelines I think everyone should consider when choosing what to read:
Read something long: Tweets, status updates and inspirational quotes are the literary equivalent of chowing down a Snickers bar. Hey, I love Snickers, but if that’s all I ate, I’d be an unhealthy wreck. Likewise, go beyond the random news article or short story and read something with a little heft to it. It doesn’t have to be Game of Thrones or Atlas Shrugged, but try to read something that will take you a few days to finish. You’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment.
Read something old: When you talk with your grandfather, or some other older person who has a garage full of tools, he’ll know not only what each tool does, but remember how he got it, what he made with it and, most importantly, why he needed that particular tool instead of some other one. Language is the writer’s primary tool, and knowing where it came from, how it developed and why certain words are more appropriate than others is critical to becoming a better writer. Reading something written before your grandfather was born is one of the best ways to discover language history. (There’s even a branch of academia dedicated to studying different elements of language in literature: Philology.)
Read something new: Just as important as reading old things is reading new things – especially if you want other people to read the new stuff you write! Keeping up with new books, stories and ideas will keep your own writing fresh and relevant to your audience.
Read something fun: Don’t feel like you have to read grammar books and how-to blog posts just because you want to be a better writer. Get lost in a good story. You’ll absorb the grammar stuff — both the rules and the exceptions — and you’ll probably learn a little about character development, story pacing and plot hooks along the way.
Read something uncomfortable: Don’t stick with just the stuff you like and agree with. Hate romance? Read some. Think you’ve outgrown sci-fi? Read some. Annoyed by the conservative diatribes of Ann Coulter or the socialist treatises of Noam Chomsky? Read one of their books. Now do that for the ideas you dislike in other areas, such as art, music, science, morality, food, or anything else. You might find some common ground, or you might disagree with the authors more than ever. But I guarantee you’ll have something to write about when you’re done!
Read something together: Read to your kids — or nieces and nephews, a friend’s kids, even a class at a nearby elementary school. Find a book club (Meetup.com has a few). Study literature online. Join Goodreads and connect with friends. Reading doesn’t have to be a solitary activity. There’s bound to be someone who is either reading the same thing as you, or who wants to read it. Talking about the things you read with other people will give you additional perspectives, and you’ll get a chance to pick up some things you missed along the way.
Don’t just sit there. Pick up a book, open it and start at the beginning!
Then, go write about it.