Tips and Tricks Tuesday: Is Reading Essential to Good Writing?

This blog entry from Perpetual Prose has got me wondering about a battle that pops up in all creativity-based professions (writing included), and I would love to hear your take on this: bored womanDoes one need to study the masters of one’s profession in order to become proficient, or does the studying of others rob one of his/her uniqueness and reduce him/her to a parrot?

Wow. That’s wordy. Let me try again: If I read a lot, can I still write with my voice, or will I just regurgitate what I’ve read?

I read quite a bit and I can’t imagine turning into pen and ink parrot. It seams incredibly pompous to suggest that I would even be able to! I’m no expert, but the more I ponder this, the sillier it seams.

On the flip side, how would someone who’s never read, know anything about writing? To some degree we all learn by example, don’t we? We can’t learn everything by trial and error. Perhaps I’m not considering everything. Please feel free to point out what that is.

All that we read rattles around in out head and together with our experiences forms our voice. Since no two sets of experiences and repertoires of books read are alike, I don’t believe we should be troubled about mimicking others.

The more important question should be: Where is the balance between reading too little great literature, and reading to the point of distraction. How do we know when we are reading enough to understand what is valuable in a work of literature and leaving ample time and energy to practice writing ourselves.

Obviously that has to be a personal choice, as does the definition of value in literature. So perhaps one can be a great writer without reading after all! We just have to allow for that person’s definition of value in literature. If he/she is happy with what they produce, then so be it.

However, if he/she wants to appeal to an audience or get paid for their writing, they’d better widen their definition of value and start doing some research. Namely, reading.

What do you think?


8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ShaunD on November 11, 2009 at 1:32 am

    I write a whole lot of horse turd sometimes or should I say most of the times but if I didn’t then who am I? If I wrote like the others then what am I a copycat… a cheater? Why rob myself of style and authenticity just to be popular or to get a job? There might be people out there that enjoy the way I say things rather than the scripted stuff you read in magazines etc. Freedom of speech I say… hahaha be yourself otherwise, what is the point of writing your own story?


    • Thanks for your reply. I write a whole lot of “horse turd” myself, obviously, and I find it very gratifying. I enjoy writing for myself far more than anyone else.

      But the almighty dollar calls to me. If I can earn a living by writing for others than it’s worth it to me to that sometimes as well. As you point out Freedom of Speech allows us to be ourselves, and if we so choose, we can have it both ways.


  2. I think it depends on the person. I remember a girl – and you will know who it was, Lyn- who had a unique vibrato to her voice. I loved it. But as she grew older and was taught and trained to sing the “right” way, her voice became like many other beautiful, trained voices. I remember you telling me that your voice didn’t sing certain songs “right”. I think it is the same in writing. If we think that we need to write like that masters, we can train ourselves to copy that style. But if we value what we have and look to the masters for ideas and things that “fit” us, then I think that will help us improve us without re-doing us. I know that reading certainly inspires us as to what we may want to write about.


    • Ya, but we only knew her at the jumping-off point of her training. I’d love to see what she’s up to now. Maybe she’s mastered the masters and has found her unique-ness again.


  3. Posted by Shaun on November 16, 2009 at 1:24 am

    Well as so many other things I guess it is a matter of opinion… I just feel why change your style if it is unique. Yes I agree that you can improve on technique by reading what the masters write and adapting it to suite your style but, how often is it improvement and how much is change? Again make no mistake, I am no writer and I never wanted to be one but I enjoy having my say even if it means I make no sense to some (I might make sense to others) which means eventually I will create my own followers because of been unique in my style. I just believe in keeping it real… some people should sing, some should play the instruments and the others need to be the audience but there are how many genre’s and that is what makes it unique.

    PS: I do enjoy this chat though


    • Shaun, it’s great to hear from you again. Thanks for continuing this discussion.

      “…how often is it improvement and how much is change?” That’s a really important point. I’m not sure there is an answer, at least not a general, blanket-type answer. But I agree “to each, his own.” The important thing is to keep writing, singing, dancing, watching, or whatever.

      Just curious, do you think that earning a living as a writer, dancer, or whatever you’re passionate about, takes away some of the value in your craft? This is an issue I’ve tossed around a little.


      • This is Lyn’s husband. Yes, doing what you love as a profession takes some of the romance out. I see that with my job as a mechanic. The only reason I still enjoy it is that I feel accomplished in fixing things.

  4. Such good questions. I’ve heard many writers say they cannot read books when they are writing their own books because they pick up on too many idiosyncrasies that are not typically their own. I think you have to find a balance. Reading a lot definitely makes you a better writer. I’ve found it interesting to compare what great classics that I’ve read to what my other English major friends have read. None of us have read all of the great literature. There is just too much! I think you have to read a lot to build a good foundation, but then you must trust yourself enough to let go and embark on your own writing projects. They will probably totally suck at first. (So, I am learning) But, now that I’m writing more, I’m trying to think back about my favorite books and the aspects I liked the most, and incorporate that into my own writing.


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