Reading To Write

October 20, 2009

There’s no way around it. If you want to be a successful author, the best way to apprentice yourself is to write every day, without excuses and to read everything you can get your hands on, in as many genres as possible.

In order to land a contract, you need to bother to learn the craft of building a story, grammar, spelling, punctuation. You also needs to learn what works in telling a story, and learn how to apply it to the stories you want to tell.

The best way to do that is to read, read, read, read. Read in genres that you usually don’t, because you’ll start spotting universal craft principles that apply across the board.

What moves you as a reader? What distances you from the character and the story? What creates physical sensations as you read, good or bad?

You can learn just as much, or even more, from a book you don’t like as you can from one you love. Also, re-reading old favorites is useful, because a timeless book will teach you something new every time you read it.

Be careful what you read as you write. For instance, I’m currently working on fantasy and paranormal pieces. I’m reading biography and mystery. When, in a few weeks, some mysteries need my attention, I will switch to something else. That way, no one else’s style in the same genre leaks into my work, and I can stay true to my own voice.

You don’t have to set apart your “writing reading” from” pleasure reading” if you approach your pleasure reading with a heightened awareness. Be more sensitive to all the elements of the story. When you surface after losing yourself in a section of the story, think about WHY you were so immersed. What specific elements made you feel a part of the story instead of a voyeur? For me, the best books make me feel like I’m living the story, not standing outside of it, watching. Ask yourself how the author managed to do it, and, without imitating content, how can you apply those techniques to your own story, in your own voice?

Francine Prose wrote a wonderful book called Reading Like a Writer, where she breaks down different aspects of writing such as character, dialogue, narration, and even gesture, and how they are integrated into good writing. Although she offers an impressive reading list, the same ideas can be used on almost anything you read. Not every book will live up to these ideas, and that’s as interesting as the ones that do.

People who say they “don’t have time” to read often also struggle to “have time” to write, and then wonder why they can’t get published. First of all, there will never “be” time to either read or write; you have to “make” time, “steal time”, demand time. Second, you need to apprentice yourself to learn the craft of anything you want to do, whether it’s woodworking or brain surgery or writing. Third, too many people feel that “Art” is the opposite of “craft”, when in reality, successful art seamlessly melds with craft.

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. She writes “The Literary Athlete” column for The Scruffy Dog Review. Visit her blog, Ink in My Coffee.



  1. […] It’s the third Wednesday of the month, which means my next SDR blog post is up. This one is about “Reading To Write.” […]

  2. This advice, though so simple, is really difficult to take when life gets so busy. I’ve found many ways to simplify, mostly by just saying no, my day to include things that I want to do. Not the spouse, not the kids, just me.

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