In his 2000 book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dig in.
I’ve written about this a lot on here, and I still believe it’s true after all these years of actively writing fiction: reading is just as important every day as actually writing. You can write book after book after book without actually reading anything… but the writing won’t be any good. Unless you’re a genius writer, you’re going to need to read, too.
But you have no time to read, right?
Yes, of course, the question becomes, when do you have time for read? I know. I get it. Some days I struggle to find the 2-hour window to get my words down for the day, or to revise the latest chapter on my work-in-progress. And now I have to find time to read, too?
Finding time to read, let alone write, is especially difficult for me during a teaching semester. I’m already reading dozens of essays, articles and books for my next class session. The amount of reading I do for my teaching job is a lot, and yet I still feel like this doesn’t really count as my reading for the day. Reading for the creative person should be reading for the sake of joy. To be told a story not for your work but for the pure love of the narrative.
Can you read anything?
Sure, you can read anything you want, no matter what you write. I personally write middle grade and young adult suspense novels. And so often I feel like I should be reading more MG and YA suspense, or just more MG and YA. But you know what I love to read more than anything else? Non-fiction books, and adult literary novels. I’m a huge movie buff, so I particularly love tell-all books about Hollywood. I got my BA degree in Film in Los Angeles and lived there for eight years, so stories about film artists and big successes and faded dreams are some of my favorites. I also adore reading big, thick adult literary novels. This past year I discovered the work of Sarah Waters, and I’m in love.
Am I going to try to write a Sarah Waters book next? Probably not. What matters is that I read it and love it and want to go back to it. And you know what? It doesn’t hurt to read up. It doesn’t hurt to read a novel that you feel like if you live to be 1,000 years old you’ll never be good enough to write. Because it makes me always strive for better no matter what I’m writing. To try to get better with each work, with each year.
But if you want to read junky novels, go for it! If you want to read plays or screenplays or poetry, by all means. Try to avoid certain types of magazines, I’d say, like celebrity gossip stuff that will probably fry your brain before anything is ever fed to it. But no matter what, if you want to be a writer, read, read, read.
When Should You Read?
So how do you find time to read? It depends on your job, and your circumstance, of course, but what I try to do every day is this: twenty minutes of reading upon waking up in the morning. Whether that’s a chapter, or two chapters, or just three pages, begin your day with a little bit of reading. You don’t have to lie in bed for an hour reading, flipping through fifty pages or more. Just a little to get things going.
Next, I try to read for thirty minutes in the early evening right before I make dinner. Especially in the winter, when the sky gets dark at five o’clock, I often turn to my TV to watch an episode of a show or an entire movie, but since I like to eat dinner a little bit later, typically between 7:30 and 8:00, I usually find a window of time between 6 and 7 to read a little bit. Again, nothing major. Not a hundred pages. I aim for ten pages, maybe twenty, and then I begin to cook dinner.
Lastly, I try to read soon before going to bed, although I admit that gets harder the older I become. I used to be able to slip into bed at 11:30 and read until 1:00. Now I get in bed at 11:30, and I’m out by 11:40. There have been nights I fell asleep with a book in my hands, and when I woke up in the morning, the book was somewhere on the floor. Worse, since I didn’t put the bookmark inside, sometimes I can’t remember where I left off!
So I don’t read right before I go to sleep anymore, sad to say. One thing I did try just recently was reading in the bathtub around ten o’clock. Last week I had a cold, and I decided to take a bath to relax. I brought a book in with me, took the bath for about forty-five minutes, and I read nearly fifty pages of the book by the time the bath was finished. I continued taking a bath late in the week even when my illness had evaporated. I just loved not having a phone to look at, no TV to stare at, just the warm bath and a good book in my hands to keep me company.
Yes, You Need to Read if You Want to be a Writer
What’s most important is that you find the time to read if you want to write. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day. That can be 30 minutes straight. That can be three 10-minute sessions at different times of the day. Or, of course, read a whole lot more! Once in a while I’ll curl up with a good book on a Sunday afternoon and just read and read for hours. Doing so reminds me of those lazy summer days when I was nine. Doing so reminds me of why I love reading in the first place.
Stephen King is right: reading is absolutely the cornerstone of a creative person’s life, and if you find time to read every day, your writing will only get better and better. Remember, you don’t only have to read in your genre, although you definitely should seek out lots of books in your genre (and age market, too).
But at the end of the day, read anything. Read what you want! And the creative juices will flow for you throughout your long writing life.