One of the most common “tips” you are likely to hear for writers is that you have to read. And read a lot. Read in your genre. Read out of your genre. Read everything.
I completely agree with this and it’s going to be somewhat my focus for this post.
If you want to be a filmmaker, you should be a fan of film. If you want to make sculptures, you should know about sculpting. If you want to be a coder, you need to know coding languages.
If you want to be a writer, you have to read similar writing to what you want to write. There’s a few good reasons for why this is so:
- Reading in your area of interest or your genre keeps you up to date with current trends and current authors, with what’s popular and what’s falling out of grace. You can’t predict what’s going to be the next craze, but at the very least you’ll be part of the conversation of what’s the current craze and can better predict what’s coming based on that.
- It keeps you current with the most recent progress that’s been made in your field. Maybe new technologies are coming around, new software, new techniques that will save you time. Keeping abreast of what the successful people are doing can help you strive for that success as well.
- Analyzing other writers that you either like or don’t like is pivotal to the continuing development of your unique voice. You are not a carbon copy of your favorite author or a blend of your favorite four authors, but some amalgamation of what they’re doing with your own personal hangups and desires.
Number 3 is the one I’m going to talk about. When you progress from a reader to a writer, you are never reading just for pleasure again. Sure, you may derive great pleasure from the reading process, but in the back of your mind you will be analyzing what you’re reading. You’ll see things that you hate and know you don’t want to write. You’ll see amazing techniques that you just know you have to crib for your own style.
A writer is never just reading. They are criticizing and analyzing the text in order to better understand their own work. In order to understand the market. In order to learn something.
And this isn’t just localized to reading. As a writer, I find myself slightly detached from basically every aspect of my life. Listening to a coworker’s troubles is fuel. I still empathize with them, but a part of me is listening to them with an ear to their “character”, an ear to how they’re speaking, what they’re focusing on. That person’s problems are no less important to me because I’m thinking about them and their scenario on multiple different levels.
I watch movies and play video games and read books and attend concerts and go bowling and go to work and talk about religion and politics and sports. But I’m also engaging a critical part of my brain, slotting pieces together, looking for connections, for plots, for story. For character.
There’s an adage that a writer is a psychologist. I believe this to be at least partially true, because if you want to write interesting, varied, conflicted, complex characters you have to be able to identify that in other people. You have to create people who are not you, which means you have to be able to examine those people outside yourself.
And so you develop the skillset of critical analysis, and let it run in the back of your mind for all aspects of living. This is another reason why I think it’s pivotal for writers to have “quiet time” in which they are not actively engaged in anything in particular. They need time to unpack all the thoughts and feelings they’ve been observing and taking part in. Writers are not just living life; they’re observing a life lived.
And that can be ugly. Writers can come off as lacking empathy, as sociopathic, as detached and uninterested, as selfish. And some of them are, of course they are. But most are just developing a skill that is absolutely VITAL to the writer, and exercising that skill because to do otherwise would be to give up.
So to reel this back in, I’m a writer and I don’t just read for pleasure anymore. I read to find what I like, what I don’t like, what lessons I can take from a novel or short story and apply them to my own writing. I read Stephen King and see things I love and don’t love, and I can recognize those things in my own writing because I was emulating him at an earlier point in my journey. I read Robert Jordan and see how I don’t want to do description. I read something that Joss Whedon wrote, or Aaron Sorkin wrote, and suddenly that is my obsession for learning snappy dialogue.
I am not any of these people, nor would I hope to ever be. Each of them are doing things I like and don’t like, and I’m forming a writer’s voice by taking what I want from each and adding my own pathos, my own quirks, to the mix. Maybe it’s never going to be as good as the people who make millions, but it won’t stop me from trying.
It won’t stop me from writing the hell on.