Writers Make the Worst Readers?

In order to be a good writer, you must be a good reader.

There are what, about a billion ways of saying that? The concept is mentioned in what, 99.8% of every collection of advice for writers ever assembled? Something like that.

And we know why this counsel is so ubiquitous; it is true. A writer needs to have an idea about how to lay out story, develop character, and come up with some kind of “voice” for their fiction. The best way to do this is to become familiar with the works of others. This is of particular importance if one wants to break into a specific genre. Understanding how the strict formulas of a romance or a Western unfold is crucial to conventional success.

But outside of honing the craft, there is another reason it’s vital for writers to read a lot. A reason that is not often mentioned. Writers need to read the stories of others in order to experience the power of stories without being responsible for it.

Writing, if you want to be any good at it, is difficult work. There are a million and one ways to write a story, and you will find conflicting advice about how to proceed in doing so. But one thing is universal; it isn’t easy. There is plot, character, setting, prose, dialogue. Pacing. Voice. Length. Theme. Keeping track of all of that would be maddening if you didn’t think it was your destiny to write fiction, or if you didn’t love it. (And half the time, it’s maddening even then.)

So difficult is it, in fact, that we writers think first of improving our own craft when we endeavor to read fiction. We actually set aside the number one reason normal people read fiction in order to designate the act as something we require in order to make our jobs even more difficult.

The reason people read fiction of course is to be moved. To fear, love, laughter, tears, and any number of other responses, but to be moved sums them all up well. We have told stories as a race since before we could write them down. We dream stories of a kind when we sleep. There is a good chance that telling stories was the first communal thing sentient human beings did together.

This very blog says, “stories matter”. You’re damn right they do.

When we’re writing stories, we may forget that. So buried in the concepts I mentioned above, and then in revising, and then in selling and publishing all of it, we tend to forget that we writers require consumption of stories just as much as any other human. We too must plug into the collective psyche of the human experience. We too must escape, be made to think, be taken in by a memorable personality someone created. See ourselves in the adventures of another. And so on.

Yes, the more we read the more we understand writing. Yet if we’re only reading in order to study writing, we are doing ourselves a huge disservice.

There’s an old saying that the best doctors make the worst patients, because they think they are so tuned into and knowledgeable about all biology that they won’t take direction and be treated. I think an equally apt expression could be that if we are not careful, writers make the worst readers.

Always remember that there are worlds, characters, stories, plots, dialogue, lessons and so on which we have not slaved over creating. We must not get so engaged in creating our own that we forget the intrinsic value in visiting those of others. We aren’t so blessed that we don’t need to do that. It’s even possible that writers are in even more need of enjoying the fiction of others than most people, due to how crazy we make ourselves as we write our own.

Fiction is a powerful thing. Not because we write it, but because we read it and share it. Keep that in mind the next time you are reading someone else’s stuff, and forget about honing your craft for a bit.

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