top of page

Do You Have To Read To Write? A Hopefully Unnecessary Argument For Reading

Yes, you do have to read to be a writer.


Girl sitting on a pile of book. girl reading. stars. KMK. You have to read to write.  illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy.


Some Might Argue Otherwise. But I'm Not Here For It

If you aren't reading, you can't write, or you can write, but likely not well.

I've heard the argument that not reading preserves a writer's unique, authentic voice, but I'm not sure I want to hear the voice of a writer who can't appreciate well... writing. A writing style and voice completely uninfluenced by other writers and authors is basically the voice of, I don't know, arrogance? Of knowing better than everyone else without bothering to find out what everyone else knows.

If you want to be a fiction writer, read fiction. You want to write articles and journalistic pieces, read articles and journalistic pieces. It's a very A equals A equation. If you want to write better than your peers, then dip your toes into multiple styles and genres; like a boxer learning ballet, you can float like a butterfly and shock your opponents through your seemingly original moves and ability to rhyme. And it's fun. Reading is fun. Why do I have to convince you of this? If you don't like reading, it's because you're reading the wrong books.

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot, Read widely, and constantly work to refine and redefine your own work as you do so." — Stephen King

Books Are A Resource For Writers

Having a backlog of books is handy to help you write scenes that just aren't working. I suck at writing suspense and horror scenes (likely because I don't really read that genre), but when I needed help writing a scary scene, I had a few books to turn to. I could read the scenes (slowly) and try and get to the bottom of what made the scene suspenseful. How did the writer handle the release of information? How did they describe what the character was seeing and feeling?

Of course, these backlog books can only take you so far, my style tends more towards jokey and goofy, so it would be jarring for the reader if I suddenly broke the narrative voice. I had to try and pinpoint the guidelines and reestablish them in my book's style. It went… okay.

Being A Reader Doesn't Mean You Can Write (Sadly)

I wish the number of books I've read directly correlated to how good a writer I am. I would be a God-tier. Sadly, that's not how it works.

You can look at the paintings, admire them, study the line work, but staring at art does not an artist make. An artist still needs to figure out how to hold a paintbrush; there are steps that still need to be taken. The same is true of reading, it would be harder to write if you never read, but reading does not make a writer. There is no reverse correlation.

How Can You Be Original If You Don't Know What's Already Out There?

If you don't know what's on the bookshelf, how can you add to it with true originality? An original idea is only truly original if everyone agrees it is. Just because you've never heard of it before doesn't mean everyone else isn't going to call you a low-down, dirty copycat. And you might be that copycat. I know I've had ideas I thought were original, only to realize that they dripped into my brain through the cultural stratosphere. If you've never read Jane Austen's Emma, you might say to yourself, "Wow, imagine this storyline but set in the Regency era?"

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read." — James Baldwin

Keeping Up With The Jones's

An architect needs to understand the trend in architecture, whether it be green buildings, curved lines, or floor-to-ceiling mirrored glass. If they don't know the trends, they can't decide whether to follow them, update them, or subvert them. The same is true for writers. Writers need to know what the readers of the world want to read, what's on trend, and what isn't. That way, we can decide whether to follow or buck what's popular. It's an informed decision rather than one based in ignorance.

Know Your Audience (and your audience reads)

As much as writers and authors like to pretend otherwise, writing is a job, a career, and every sales expert will tell you to know your audience.

I will admit that I basically ignored this advice while writing my book, not because I thought it was bad advice but because it made my head hurt. I started to think of typing as confronting the terror of the blank page. It was much too wishy-washy for my taste, and I had to nip it in the bud before it grew into a full-blown conceit. One where I would begin to wear black cloaks, drink at 9 am, and talk about the impetuous ways of the muses.

I consoled myself with the thought that I am my audience. I read books, I like books, and if I like my book there is an audience like me that will as welll. Whether this is accurate or not has yet to be verified.

“If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice." — J.D. Salinger

Admittedly, Reading Can Be A Distraction From Writing

There is a small caveat to the decree (because, at this point, it is a decree) that you must read to write. That caveat is that tucking yourself up with a favorite book and a cup of tea to settle in for a cozy read is not "working."

Sorry again.

"If you feel the urge to write, just lie down and read a book: it will pass." — Fran Lebowitz

Reading When You Have the Intent to Write Is Completely Different From Reading For Pleasure

I have one incredibly pathetic superpower, I can read fast. Would I have chosen super strength or flight? Probably, but you get stuck with what you get stuck with, and I'm not sure anyone was handing out the flying gene. While there are some upsides to reading fast, as a writer, there are some major downsides.

When I read a book, I skim the areas that bore me; what a coincidence that the parts of writing I now struggle with the most are the parts I usually skim. Character descriptions (yawn), setting descriptions (sorry, I almost fell asleep just thinking about it), and the never-ending pain of transitions between scenes.

Writing Destroys Reading

Where once I read a book and simply fell into it, now it's difficult to switch the analysis side of my brain off. I can't stop hunting down head-hopping, crutch words, POV switches, and weird sentences that should have been deleted by the editor.

I don't know if it's because I've gotten older, if I've just read so many books that I know most of the tropes and tricks, or if it's because I've become a writer, but books don't hit the same as they used to. I suspect it's a mix of all three, but maybe I could have bought myself a few more happy reading years if I had never decided to become a writer. If I'd known how much writing would impact my reading life, I might have thought twice about ever typing a word.

"Read with the mind-set of a carpenter looking at trees." —Terry Pratchett

Editing Is Reading

Editing is basically reading, then reading some more, then typing some words, changing a sentence, and then reading it. You will have to read and re-read your writing so much that you'll lose touch with reality. You have to approach your writing like a reader—which is hard enough as it is without adding the extra layer of being a writer who doesn't read.

I love reading. I even love re-reading the same book over and over again. But I read and re-read my book so many times that eventually, I was physically incapable of reading another sentence. I would sooner have set the whole thing on fire than read another word of it. That's when I sent it to my lovely editor. And then: I had to read it again while editing it.


bottom of page