Read your way into writing

At the start of a new course I often ask people what they are reading at the moment. Sometimes I’ll ask them about a favourite book, or something they’ve read recently that has inspired them. It’s a great way to learn about people’s tastes, what they enjoy and what feeds their writing, but often several in the group will say ‘Oh I don’t have time to read.’ They might say it with a shrug as if it doesn’t really matter, or they might say it with a sigh of regret. Some sound a little guilty, others are defiant, even prickly. Occasionally someone will say ‘I’m afraid to read because I know I can never write as well as [insert name of author]’. I’m with Stephen King on this one. His advice, if you want to write, is to read. I know that when I’m gearing up to write, one of the things that helps me get started is to read my way in. It might be the novel I’m reading, or some poetry or an article in the newspaper that sparks something in me. I read to understand how the words work; the author’s techniques and the effect they achieve. I suppose I’m like the art students you sometimes see in a gallery. They sit in front of great paintings, copying or rendering them in their own sketch pads; not to imitate them, but to study and understand the artist’s use of brush stroke and colour. Last week I read The Beacon, a novella by Susan Hill. I enjoyed its measured tone and the multiple third person point of view that shone light in to a dark, enigmatic family story. It got me thinking about a story of my own that’s been bubbling under for a few years. I thought about the central character and the people around him. I looked at the story from a new character’s point of view; a character who was lurking in the background but whose perspective showed me things I had missed. Next week I’ll read something else and it will probably send me in another direction. I don’t mind this. It’s part of the process and it gets me thinking and imagining. Last Sunday I sat down to look at my story for the first time in months, with Susan Hill in my head. Three hours later I’d solved a structural problem (the placing of back story), and felt re-energised, ready to start the serious second draft. Three hours had felt like five minutes. I’m sure that reading helps me to write. What do you think?

3 Comments on “Read your way into writing”

  1. Carolyn Hughes

    I totally agree that reading helps with writing. One of the reasons I joined my local book club was to get out of my reading rut. We have been reading some Chris Cleave novels recently and they are powerful stories that stay with you. But I also read a lot of teen/ crossover. My daughter recommended The Hunger Games and they are excellent. I’m not a great fan of fantasy fiction but these have a ring of truth.

  2. Kitty Wright

    We discussed this idea in a non-fiction context at a Guardian Masterclass I went to recently. Some feature writers worry about reading other journalists’s work for fear of being influenced, or becoming derivative, particularly if they frequently read someone with a strong style or voice. But the firm consensus was that to write well we should read, read, read.

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