Posted in Writing

Why You Need to Read a Lot and Write a Lot

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

It’s one of the most famous quotes from the entire book. It’s the quote that I read at the impressionable age of sixteen that has stuck with me ever since, this idea that no one can really teach you how to write. You can’t sit in a lecture hall and have some professor go on and on about the tools of writing and get you at the end of that semester fully prepared to write the world’s greatest novel.

You have to read a lot. And write a lot.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Turns it, the older I get, including both of these activities in my daily life seems to get harder and harder. I still make a sincere effort to do the following, seven days a week — at least one hour of writing, whether it’s writing articles here on Medium, or writing new prose for a short story, or revising one of my recent novels. One hour, minimum. Preferably more. Some days when I have little to do I’ll spent four or five hours working on my writing, and those days are both rare and wonderful.

When it comes to reading, I try, genuinely try, to read for at least thirty minutes each day. Reading comes more difficult for me on a daily basis than writing. When it comes to writing, I know I’m producing something, anything, even if it’s just a few revised pages, even if it’s just a few hundred words for an article. I have put words on the page. I have done something. There’s not really any accountability for reading, though. Nobody’s watching. Nobody’s waiting to hear about what I read for thirty minutes this morning, or twenty minutes this evening. It’s something I essentially have to force myself to do.

But that’s the thing about reading, isn’t it? When you feel forced to do it, when you pick up any old book and say, okay, I’m gonna read this for thirty minutes, no matter what. King says I have to read a lot! So read, Brian, read! And then you get to page two and fall asleep. Or you glaze over so many paragraphs that suddenly you’re on page fifty and you have no idea who the characters are or what the hell is going on. That’s the dark side of reading. When it’s like you’re back in school and you feel forced to do it.

I just graduated from my second masters program last May. Between my undergraduate and graduate programs, I spent nine years in college. I took so many English classes, lit classes, creative writing classes, and I read a whole hell of a lot of stuff. Some great novels. Some really terrible novels. Some books I could barely get through. Some books that surprised me. But one thing that truly excited me last May was that finally, after so many years, I’d be able to read what I want when I want. I could pick up any old thing, and no one would give me any flack.

And so in the last six months I’ve actually read a lot more novels than I did when I was in graduate school. I’m trying to read one novel every two weeks. I give every book about twenty pages, and if I’m not hooked, on to the next. I don’t have time, really, for a book I’m not interested in, or even semi-interested in. And there have been times in the last six months where I read the openings to nine books until I became hooked on the tenth. I love to read everything — literary fiction, young adult and middle grade fiction, non-fiction. I like to mix it up each time, not just read the same kind of thing over and over.

And so in the last six months I have enjoyed the hell out of such titles as The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson; The Party, by Robyn Harding, The Men Who Would Be King, by Nicole Laforte; Bettyville, by George Hodgman; Less, by Andrew Sean Greer; and A Wrinkle in Time (yes, for the first time!), by Madeleine L’Engle. I picked up these six books and just fell into the stories the way your imagination is captured as a child. There’s nothing more exciting than falling under the spell of a great book and knowing there are hundreds and hundreds of pages still to go. It’s comforting. It’s exhilarating.

And the best part of it? Reading these books actually does help me as a writer. Paying attention to things like POV, character development, pacing, sentence structure, chapter lengths, voice, dialogue, etc, helps me grow in my own fiction writing. It’s tricky, right? You don’t want to just fixate on the craft of the book you’re reading; you want to just read it as a story. But if you can manage to somehow blend the two, and keep writing every day and maybe putting into practice a few tricks you picked up in whatever recent novel you’re reading, you’re going to grow, even just a little.

So keep writing. Keep reading. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the stories. I know I do.

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