Posing the vital question: are writers also readers?

I have a question to put to you. I posted earlier this week on the books I read as a kid, which have stayed with me.

Spot my title in the middle...
Spot my title in the middle…

The reason a book ‘stays with you’ is because of its emotional impact at the time – and later. Now, that poses a question. You’d think that – as writers write – they’d draw a deeper emotional response from books and from reading than, perhaps, do people who just read. Flip sides of the same experience, but the writer’s deeper into it.

I wonder, though. It isn’t true for me. I find music offers the better experience, certainly in terms of engaging with it. Reading simply doesn’t engage me the same way.

But I write. I write a lot.

So I put it to you – does it follow that ‘writers’ must, by nature, draw their best emotional involvement from ‘reading’. Or is writing an expression of an emotional experience that writers draw, more fully, from all things – the world around them, life experiences, music and, in due place, their own reading? In the end, does it come down to individuals?

I draw distinction here between reading to reverse-engineer how it was done – to examine the way different authors approached their subjects and learn from it – with reading for pleasure. I’m asking about the latter – in short, are writers also readers?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


23 thoughts on “Posing the vital question: are writers also readers?

  1. I think writers are definitely (or should be) readers as well – I can’t see how you can write something others will enjoy reading if you don’t enjoy reading yourself (though I’ve come across writers claiming they don’t enjoy reading…I haven’t read anything by them yet so I’ve no idea if their non-reading actually affects their writing). But I don’t think that means you ‘must’ draw your best emotional involvement from reading. Like you I am also much more easily affected emotionally by music. I have had similar responses to writing, but that is much more rare, and so much more treasured because of it.

    Reading to learn about writing is a whole different kettle of fish. Part of why I started writing reviews is to help me develop that particular skill.

    1. For my part I enjoy reading, though I also find reading hard work, sometimes – it takes a lot of effort to disentangle the order of the words and I can’t read if I’m tired. But as you say, writing is about a lot more than just input from reading. It’s about transference of emotion – an emotion built from a wide range of inputs. Music is an absolutely vital part of the ‘writing’ mix!

  2. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” Inspirational thought from F Scott Fitzgerald – The great Gatsby. Yes I think writers improve when they read.

    1. Definitely true. My problem is I keep ‘reverse engineering’ stuff I read, out of habit…hard to then get the enjoyment from reading, sometimes. But all grist to the mill.

  3. Short answer is no, I wouldn’t class myself as a reader of novels. I recently finished Lionel Asbo: State of England and that was the first novel I’d read for several years. I read a lot of non-fiction, but music and film fire my imagination.

    1. Personally I’d class music and film as better influences for writers than drawing from others’ writing alone. Because writing (including non-fiction) is about transfer of emotion – feelings, ideas, inspirations – that has been distilled from all sources. The mood a piece of music can put a writer into can have profound effect on the writing, even if the subject of the writing is utterly different from the subject of the music.

  4. I always felt that a writer should be an avid reader. I have always, since a child, devoured as many books as I can, but I sure can’t write, my posts are as good as they’re going to get.

      1. I take that from you as the ultimate compliment. But, in my haste to keep the posts short and manageable, do you think I chop up the sentences too much?

        1. I’d vary the sentence length a bit, perhaps, and don’t be afraid of letting the material ‘breathe’ – a few extra words aren’t a labour to read but can give the writing a sense of rhythm and space. It’s a balancing act with any blog posts – I’ve seen figures like 600 words as an absolute top end size, but some bloggers write significantly more – or less – and it works fine. Looking forward to your next post, incidentally – I’m not at all familiar with the post-Pearl Harbor head-rolling in the US Navy!

  5. I don’t think you have to be an avid reader to be a writer, even a good writer. Thinking it over I’m not sure the two are related.

    In your previous post about books that stay with you, I remember the two books that inspired me to write. The first was The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz, which was, as the blurb on the back cover promised, “a slam-bang space-happy fantasy!” It was one of those books you wish you could read again for the first time.

    The second book was Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin. When I finished that book I remember very distinctly thinking “I can do that,” and I did. Very soon I realized that pen and paper weren’t going to be fast enough. I took a typing course that next semester (I was 14) and my parents bought me a portable typewriter for Christmas.

    So books started me off as a writer, and books and reading continue to be part of my life, although with changes. I find I read less fiction now, partly because my tastes have changed and partly because very few fiction writers are doing the sort of work I enjoy reading. Fifteen years ago I started reading history, mostly aviation-related, and mostly as research for books I’m writing. Fiction, but one likes to get the details correct.

    I also find that when I read fiction I have an increased tendency to read critically, from an editorial perspective, than used to be the case. That’s not just me; several of the members of my writers’ group have the same tendency. Partly I think that’s because the quality of editorial work in the publishing industry has been declining over the last twenty years. Perhaps that’s a subjective impression, but once upon a time I had a job as a proofreader, and it’s one of those skills that stays with you, and the number of typos is definitely on the increase. I think as well that awkward phrasing and sometimes outright mistakes are being left in — either unnoticed or simply shrugged off.

    Which, truthfully, might get back to what I also perceive as a declining level of literacy, not in the sense of the ability to read per se, but the depth and breadth of reading in the general population, especially, I regret to say, here in the States.

    So, short answer: you don’t have to be a reader to be a good writer, but in my opinion it helps so much that the two should go hand in hand.

    1. You’ve summed up my thoughts precisely! To me, writing is a very different matter from reading – because writing involves a confluence or distillation of all things that provoke mood, or meaning, or a sense of the meaningful. Music, in particular, is a powerful force for creating mood that can have a quite profound effect on what I write, even if the subject is unconnected. It seems to me that writing must draw from all these things. Whereas reading is the receipt of that concatenation of author thought. As you say, two different things.

      I’d agree about the drop of literacy – true in New Zealand too. It seems to be starting at source – the quality of some of our journalists when it comes to the plain mechanics of grammar, spelling and so forth, is abysmal by the standards required of me in my early freelance journalism days.

  6. Being an avid reader and book reviewer and author I read everything I can. I believe that my writing and insight into ideas has improved with each book I read.

    So many books out there and not enough time to read all that I have. Doing my best though!

    A famous author once said that she never reads other authors’ books because she fears she may copy something into her own books from others.

    1. It’s all good – all a learning curve. There’s nothing like that ‘aha’ moment when you read something and realise it can feed into your own techniques. I find myself consciously ‘reverse engineering’ books I read – fiction and non-fiction alike. An awkward habit in some ways, because it interrupts the enjoyment of the content. On the other hand, it’s makes for better writing of my own.

  7. Before I started reading your post, my answer was yes, and it still is. I have to admit that I am the kind of reader who is very much aware of how a writer is putting together sentences, word by word. I “hear” the language, and it determines my response. Of course, so does the plot execution in fiction and the argument in nonfiction. Yet, it is the flow of the language that holds me as both a writer and a reader. For me, being a reader has a direct influence on my writing.

    Interesting that you mention music for classical music plays all day long in my home. I will say there have been times that it has been the music that helped me find words. Fascinating post, Matthew. Thanks!

    1. Music is a fantastic writing tool! I find I write very differently depending on the music I have playing. Sometimes, music can set a mood which – in turn – makes words flow in a particular way. It is, to my mind, ‘art’ in the truest sense. If the author can draw a personal emotion from the mood evoked by music (unique to themselves, of course) and find a way to transfer that first to paper, thence to the thoughts of a reader (who will have their own personal response) – then that, surely, is art achieved; not merely transference of mood, but the more particularly a transformation and personalisation of that mood – all though abstract instruments such as sound, the pen, and the mind.

  8. I have a big background in music, playing instruments and listening to all kinds of music growing up. I think us writers have an ear for lyrical language after that kind of input. I don’t think you could write well without reading too though.

    1. Absolutely true! I know I did it that way. I guess the point I’m making is that writers draw that emotion from a wide range of influences – not just their reading – and distil it down to the written word. A rich experience for the reader, ideally, from which they draw their own inspiration and emotion – including, as you say, the motive to become a writer themselves. And it is, I think, a compelling motive when it strikes!

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