In his book On Writing, the great (and very prolific) Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” In honor of National Read a Book Day, let’s take a look at the way reading influences your writing.
When you write in a particular genre or for a specific age group, it’s essential to read similar works. Doing so will help you absorb the conventions for that type of writing. According to writer Angelita Williams, “When you’re enjoying a particular work of fiction, your creative mind tends to latch onto that author’s writing style, word usage, and methods of characterization. If you’ve been reading Victorian romance novels, for example, I’d be willing to bet that you’re writing would have an ornate flourish to it, paying particular attention to detailed descriptions of setting.
She adds, “Alternately, I’d bet that a current reader of Hemingway or Faulkner would have an understated, minimalistic strain in their prose.”
Another reason to read widely is to make sure that your idea hasn’t already been written. However, even if someone else beat you to the punch, it isn’t the end of the world. Writer Patrick Robbins describes the horror of finding a clone of his debut novel on the shelf—and the process by which he got over it. “The sky is not falling if someone writes something similar to what you’ve written,” says Robbins. “Neither is everyone ripping you off. Remember when zombies were a thing? That’s just how the culture works. When things like this happen, you shouldn’t stop writing, or get discouraged. Your writing is still yours, and you owe it to yourself to pursue it with renewed vigor”
This happens all the time in Hollywood when studios develop simultaneous projects that look a lot alike on paper. For example, the competing Snow White films of 2012 seemed suspiciously similar at first, but the finished products were nothing alike in tone or execution. There are no new plots out there, and novelty is overrated. If someone else has already written something eerily akin to your project, find a new angle or hook to make yours distinct from the competition.
Developing similar ideas is one thing, but what about imitating someone’s writing style? Have you ever hung out with someone and found yourself mimicking his or her speech patterns? Research has found that we subconsciously pick up other people’s accents when we talk to them. Something similar happens when we read a particular style of writing. Be wary of accidentally aping your favorite authors. Writer JR Parsons cautions writers against doing impressions of great writers instead of finding their own voices. Parsons recommends reading critically, with an eye (and ear!) toward understanding context and techniques used rather than simply parroting their style.
In addition to improving your writing, reading can make you a better communicator in every aspect of your life. The more you read, the more you add to your lexical bag of tricks. When the team at Grammarly was writing and researching job descriptions earlier in 2014, I found that even non-creative business writing and reading helped hone my skills. I learned specific text structures and language that I am now able to transfer to my own writing.
One of the most common pieces of advice handed out to novice writers is to “write what you know.” Most people interpret that to mean “write based on your own experiences,” but I’d argue that it has more to do with expanding your vocabulary and knowledge of writing techniques. The best way to do that? Read, of course!