Read to Write

by limebirdkate

A while back, I listened to Alice Hoffman speak. She talked about how she thought it was important to read books for pleasure while writing a novel. Hoffman reads books in a genre different from the one she’s writing at the time. This way she doesn’t emulate the author’s style, which I personally consider to be an occupational hazard, by the way.

Hoffman’s belief is that by reading books constantly, we maintain the writing zone and keep our writing skills sharp.

Another proponent of reading while working on a writing project is Stephen King. King himself reads 70-80 books a year, even though he is a slow reader. That’s because he reads whenever he has downtime, like going to the bathroom, and he reads pretty much anything he can.

In King’s book, On Writing, he says, “If you want to be a writer you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” King says he doesn’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, and yet, there is a learning process. While bad writing can teach you what not to do, good writing can teach style, believable characters, narration, and compelling plot.

I have always read books while immersed in writing a story. I get inspired to write when I’m reading a great book. Every time I come across a passage or description or a character that takes my breath away, I think how great it is to be able to write, and how I can’t wait to get back to my own work to see what I can do. Maybe there’s some jealousy there, too, the burning desire to write like that. But, that jealousy is like a whip to a horse. It propels me forward, urges me to build my skills, learn the craft, write better and stronger.

Furthermore, reading a book is a surefire way to relax from the pressures of reality. While writing offers escape as well, reading doesn’t carry the pressure of performance. A great book is pure escapism. When my novel stresses me out, I often reach for a book, sink deep down inside the pages, and lose myself in netherworlds. I’m revitalized.

My 2013 To-Read list is extensive. It’s spilled over from 2011 and 2012. I would never admit this to Mr. King, but I can’t devour 70-80 books a year, no matter if I carried books into the bathroom. Not only do I have books from longtime favorite authors to read, but I also have books from fellow bloggers. They’re all sitting on my e-reader, my shelves, in a list on a computer file. Like hibernating animals waiting for the time to awaken, these books are waiting to come alive in my hands.

Because my To-Read list holds well over 200 books, I decided that I need to prioritize and strategize. I will move some classics to the bottom to make room for self-published books from blogging friends. I will choose one book per author for my first 50 books. I will rotate through all the genres possible, reading one book per genre before repeating the cycle. By the end of the year, I anticipate to have read a well-rounded, eclectic, enriching stack of books. All of which will have helped me become a better writer.

Reading every day is as important to a writer as writing every day. Reading is a pivotal piece of that writing puzzle, the one where you might learn how to create evocative setting, or how to pace a murder scene. Reading will show you some new ways of doing your work. Reading is a writing tool. Without reading, we might as well be writing with clouds.

What does your reading list look like? Do you like to read while you’re writing a story?


Editor’s Note – Happy Birthday Riley! 🙂

74 Responses to “Read to Write”

  1. Yeah I do like to read while writing actually! While I was doing NaNo, I was still reading throughout, but it wasn’t my genre. This is interesting actually. I think we’ll definitely have a lot of different opinions here! Great post Kate! B

  2. Reading is what keeps me sane, when all the world seems to have gone mad and the news on the tv is dire, I escape into a book; therefore it not only helps me with my writing, it is also my bolt hole.

  3. I completely agree that reading is important if you want to write, I read a lot of YA which I also write – I just love it but I do try to read other types of books too when I can. I can’t imagine not reading as a writer, I love books!

    • I wonder about the writers who don’t read a lot. How on earth did they want to be writers then? One begets the other, I would think. But there are a lot of people who don’t read while writing!

  4. I read constantly. Depending on the content, I will read 20-30 books a year. It’s hard for me to get into certain genre’s which is probably normal, but I am trying to expand my horizons.

    • Hi Dennis,

      Yes, it is difficult for me to get into certain genres too — sci fi and some fantasy are the top two. I like mysteries, but only if there is a lot of character development going on. Spy thrillers are sometimes hard for me to understand but I love reading the action/suspense scenes. I have learned a bit from those.

  5. Kate, I TOTALLY agree. And I think Stephen King’s book “On Writing” is a great book!
    I recently wrote a poem (rough draft) about the dichotomy your speak of: appreciation/jealousy. I’ll share it here because I think it pertains to the post:

    Some people’s words dazzle me
    to stare open-mouthed;
    I want to read the words aloud
    to anyone who’ll listen, invite them to
    be dazzled with me —
    Sharing the dazzle will keep me
    from seeing the shadow behind the shine,
    my awareness of my own dullness creeping up
    to catch me;
    my defeated sigh must remain a caught breath,
    I must remain ensnared in my amazement,
    for it is a beautiful cage
    compared to the bear trap that can rip
    me up if I don’t keep still,
    frozen in this moment.

  6. I don’t read enough. Well I read a lot, because reading blogs is reading right?! But I don’t read enough books. I mean I’ve generally got a book on the go, but it takes me too long to get through it and I want to get to the others on my list. One of my plans for this year is to take a lunch break every day when I’m at work (I mostly just work through at my desk), and assign that as book reading time, so that even if I don’t manage any other reading that day, I will at least have done SOME reading that day. My list is quite varied, similar to yours I think, some classics, some fellow bloggers books and some recommendations. A variety of genres.

    • Haha, yes, blogging counts as reading! But I know what you mean — reading books with plot, character, setting, etc. I think your plan is brilliant, setting aside reading time is as important as setting aside writing time. I need to do something like that, other than just fitting in reading whenever I can. That might be the reason why I don’t get as much reading done as I’d like.

  7. I try and read while in writing phases and it always helps the more genres I read. My to be read pile is only into double digits. I thought it was large until you mention your 200 books list. I must try harder!

    • Yeah, 200 books is really ridiculous. I doubt I’ll get to them all because every year more and more books are being published, and eventually the interest/curiosity to read the ones from my 2011 list will give way to more current titles. I wouldn’t advise adding more books to your list unless you can devour them nightly!! 😉

  8. My reading list is long, but luckily not that long. 🙂

    I, too, find that when I’m reading a great story, I’m motivated to get back to my own novel-in-progress and write, hoping to elicit the same thrills in my readers as I’m experiencing from whatever author I happen to be reading. Of course, writing a novel also makes it hard to silence the mental editor in our minds when we read. Sometimes that can ruin the experience, but with a good enough book, I can usually turn it off.

    • If you get bored, I can certainly give you some of the books on my list to read. 😉

      I love the point you bring up about the mental editor. I do that even when I’m not actively writing a novel, which makes it easy to get frustrated with a book in the early stages. I try to silence that editor at least through the midpoint of a book, because like you say, if the story is compelling and engaging, then sometimes, those frustrations don’t matter so much.

  9. I should read more fiction than I do. I blame it on the lack of time, but if I could be more structured, there would be more time. Sometimes, a well-written book fuels my desire to write. But on a bad day? It can make me wonder why I’m trying! Why my brain and personality have to make things so difficult, I’ll never know. Cosmic payback from a past life, maybe? 😉 Like Carrie, it’s sometimes hard for me to shut down the internal editor. There’s a lot to be said for enjoying a book simply as a reader.

    (This is a rare blog reading time for me since I’m not in the office today.)

    • So, do you read a lot of non-fiction, or just not as much reading in general?

      You’re right, if we’re not feeling solid on our writing ground, then a good book definitely can make me feel like I have no business trying. I don’t like to give too much credence to that feeling though, and sometimes what helps is telling myself that this stupendous author is teaching me something.

      Yes, those past lives can really keep us on our toes, can’t they. 🙂

      Well, I hope you were able to get some writing in as well as blog reading on your day out of the office. 🙂

      • There’s a good bit of non-fiction reading for work. 😉 It’s not what I normally read for entertainment, though. And when I’ve had to read a bunch of archaeology reports for background research or gone through reference books for artifact analysis, I don’t always feel like reading for enjoyment at the end of the day. Gone are the days when I could read four or five in a week!

        And, yes, I’ve been working on the manuscript revisions, too. 😉 I have an idea for a new chapter in Crossroads that I’m working on today.

      • Oh, I can totally understand that. It’s like after a day of working in a restaurant the last thing you want to do is come home and cook.

        I’m glad to hear you’re chugging along with Crossroads! 🙂

  10. My reading list is long and vast. I write memoirs, so I read them for style and to how each author approaches the genre. But I also read historical non-fiction and fiction (mysteries, mostly). I read for pleasure and to see how writers write. I often dissect great sentences, dialogue, or paragraphs to examine what makes them work. I also just love words. I collect them. So I am thrilled when I read something that uses words with which I’m not familiar or uses words in interesting ways. It expands my linguistic muscles.

    • Smart gal, Lorna! I think that you’re probably a few steps ahead of the game because you’re ‘studying’ your genre so to speak. What is your favorite memoir?

      I have to admit, memoirs unnerve me a little because there are so many of them out there that say nothing to me about why I should care. I think memoirs would be really difficult to write, and I’m sure you have picked up a few neat tricks along the way.

      Ah, I love that: “It expands my linguistic muscles.” Lovely image. 🙂

      • I love quirky, funny memoirs–people who have had rough times but can tell about them with humor. That sends a message all on its own. That’s what my memoir does. “A Girl Named Zippy” was the first one I read like this and I’ll never forget it.

      • I have not read that one. I think I might add that to my list of 200 books!! Actually, I really will because I don’t have a lot of memoirs on my list that I’m ‘excited’ to read, so I keep pushing them back. Thanks for the tip. 🙂

  11. My reading list is all made up of old favorites — my movie list, too. Not sure why, but I don’t enjoy too many new novels. My mom has been adding to my repertoire, but I could go back and read Heinlein’s first stories about once a month.

  12. My list scares me, growing faster than I can keep up. I’m drowning in books. After I gave birth to my son, it took several years for me to be able to read without falling asleep, so I fell even further behind. Lately, I’ve been favoring little wisps of novels in translation. Good Offices by Evelio Rosero comes to mind as a recent thumbs up. Maybe short novels appeal to me because I feel so successful when I finish one. :o)

    I tend to read only nonfiction while I’m writing first drafts of stories, and then I bring back the fiction while re-writing.

    • Drowning in books. Yup. I’m with you. Short novels are a great idea for us tired, overscheduled moms.

      Mmm, neat strategy. Reading nonfiction during your first draft writing. I never thought of that. I shall try it! 🙂

  13. I love King’s book, On Writing. It’s a keeper. The thought of reading outside my genre and choosing POVs will forever tickle me. Yeah, 70-80 books a year, knock yourself out. Ah, 50 books a year, sure okay. Let me tell you how many books slow readers do. Try 10 books a year, and thats without writiing. Toileting was included in that estimate too.

    • Hey BBK, yes. You and POV will be partners in crime forever. 🙂

      Yeah, 70-80 books — that floored me. Until I remembered…this is Stephen King. He has time and opportunity to read that much. I really am curious to know if he was reading that many books during his stint at the Laundromat or any of his earlier jobs!!

      • I was going to say that same thing about King’s reading, Kate. If I didn’t have a husband, two girls, a day job with an hour-long commute, lunches to prep, dinners to make, dishes, washing, and cleaning to do, and my own stories to write…I might be able to squeeze in more than 10 or 20 books a year. 😉 Still, reading on the toilet is a habit I’m happy to have. 😀

      • I’m glad to know I’m in good, solid company when I hear that other writers can’t get more than 20 books read a year. I don’t feel as compelled to take part in those crazy reading challenges out there. 🙂

  14. I agree with others that I don’t read enough fiction while I’m writing. I read a lot of blogs, but many of those are about publishing and tech. I read quite a few articles, but those are for keeping up with current events in politics and science. I like short stories, too, which give me a little boost of creative-world story without making me rethink my own worth. (Unlike you, Kate, I fluctuate far too readily from “I’m a great storyteller!” to “Just shoot me, now.”)

    After NaNo, though, I’ve gotten a hankering to read more science fiction and fantasy. I went back and read the Burroughs Barsoom books (because they’re easy and pulpy fun, and I’ve read them before), but I’ve also decided to pick up some of the Pratchett Discworld books missing from my collection.

    So far, it’s been slow going, getting back into books proper, but it’s also something I want to do.

    Nice post!

    • I hadn’t considered the blogging as counting as reading, but I suppose it does. And a lot of blogs have helped me become a better writer. Much like a great novel does.

      I had a tough time getting back into a regular reading routine when my kids were toddlers. I was simply too exhausted. But I missed it, so I finally just settled on 15 minutes here and there. These days my reading time is eaten up by blogging time and/or research time for my WIP. I have gotten into the habit of carrying a book with me everywhere. You never know when you have 30 minutes to kill (especially in waiting rooms at the doctor’s office).

    • Mayumi, I recently came across a bunch of books by Jack McDevitt – sci-fi. I read “The Engines of God” and was hooked. Hands down, the best sci-fi I’ve ever read. A few months and about ten books later, and I’m having withdrawal symptoms because I’ve read everything he has out…

      • Neeks — is he very techy with his sci fi, or would you recommend him for a reader who isn’t all that smart when it comes to the technical side of sci fi? (I’m that reader, in case you’re wondering.) 😉

      • That was the best part of it! His tech stuff was so believeable and well-explained. I’m awful at tech stuff too, I tend to skip over it…and didn’t have to with Jack McDevitt. He gave just enough description, while staying with the story… loved it. !

      • Thanks for the recommendation, Neeks. I will definitely take a look!

      • Awesome. I will add him to my list of “To Read Sci-fi Authors.’ Thanks!!

  15. Wow another great post Kate, I read constantly, always have. I have, so many times, seen phrases, turns of word, and such that an author has used that I think is genius, so clever, etc. You try to look at those and figure out why it worked so well.

    I have no list, have just never done that. I have a co-worker who reads the same stuff I do (except the sci-fi) and buys lots of books, I get to read them after he’s done. Maybe I should ask if he has a list… lol. I save up my Readers Digest magazines and when I run out of books to read I’ll pull one of those out until I can get to the library or download something to my kindle, to get me by.

    • Sounds like you are well-stocked when it comes to reading. That’s awesome. I know what you mean because when I’m without a book — even if I know I can’t get to it for a few days — I feel very untethered.

      Yes, I don’t do it so much anymore, but when I was younger and could really dwell on a story I would underline and star certain passages that really spoke to me, the ones that made me think ‘that’s writing.’ 🙂

  16. Yes, I definitely read while writing. It’s not intentional. I just happen to always be doing both things. Haha. And I LOVE that moment when I read a passage and I feel like I can dive into it and swim around for a long time. Those parts that I just have to read again and again. Sometimes I write them down, to inspire me not copy the style, but do write something that makes me feel that way.
    Awesome post, Kate. 🙂

    • Exactly! Isn’t it the best feeling when you’re sitting there, book in hands, and you come across this amazing passage that you just have to drink in. I often close the book, close my eyes, and soak it all up. If an author gets me like that, even just once, I’m hooked for the entire book. I think it’s a real gift when an author can lure us into his/her spell.

      Thanks, lovely! 🙂

  17. That is an extensive list to read! Wow! I do agree though that reading a lot is helpful to your writing. If nothing else, a writer learns what is “good” writing and what is less than good (even if it’s only subjective). I can’t imagine a life without reading.

    • Hi Kellie,

      Yes, it is pretty extensive. I have a feeling that as time goes on I will lose interest in some of them and so that will help cut down the list. Then again, as more and more books are published my list will continue to grow!!

      There are a lot of books that I will re-read for help in various elements all because those are the books that originally inspired me to write. There are many passages I never tire of reading over and over.

  18. I have to grab books if I’m writing something like a short story, because I can never figure out good ways to go about conversations that don’t read like – “Line 1” He said. “Line 2” She said. “Line 3.” He said…. so I can definitely find reading beneficial like Mr. King suggests! Right now I’m actually reading a Stephen King, “Wolves of the Calla”. Love me some Stephen King!

    • You know, I have never read anything by King other than that writing guide, because I’m not a horror fan. It’s pretty ironic that his book is in my top 5 writing guides.

      Yes, for people who are more accustomed to writing by a specific formula or rules, reading various books would be extremely helpful for new ideas.

      • His On Writing is really a wonderful book, I have read it I think three times now. I think even if someone wasn’t really interested in writing that the book would be a good read, most of it at least. Maybe you should read some of his non-horror. Dolores Claiborne or The Green Mile… I don’t even know if I’ve read either of those to be honest LOL but the movies were really great!

      • Actually, that’s a good idea. As I’m not a horror fan but I liked On Writing so much, it might be fun to read one of those books. Thanks!

  19. Excellent and inspiring post! With everything else I’m doing, it’s difficult to find a balance but I am trying! Do you balance non-fiction with fiction? Do you read books and/or blogs on how to write?

    • Hey Raven,
      balance is very difficult to find. I have a tough time with it. As I prefer to read fiction, I definitely read more of that over non-fiction, but I do read non-fiction. I like to read books and blogs on how to write, but I’m careful that I don’t overdo it. The problem with that is everyone will tell you how to do something differently, so advice will clash. Ultimately you have to find your own methods, but it’s nice to see how some of your fave authors handle structure, for instance.

  20. I love reading while I’m writing, too. (well, I love reading any time!) My list is so long it’s overwhelming!
    Your idea of priortizing and putting classics at the bottom resonated with me. I’m going to give that a whirl, too.
    Thanks for the suggestion.

  21. I have two bookcases of books to read. And a dozen more on my kindle. It’s intense. I try to read 20-40 books a year. I like to read when drafting. Not as much when revising because revisions require so much daily reading. But I do think it’s important to read across genres to experiment with your writing horizons. 🙂


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