All Good Writers Read
Several years ago, when I was active in entrepreneurial circles and church networks, a popular slogan was, “Leaders read.”
I thought it made sense. I was a competitive guy with a penchant for extreme sports—and a tendency to rush in where angels fear to tread (embarrassing). I realized best practices weren’t something you blundered into, whether you were branding a product or building a community.
So I disciplined myself to read books that would help my big-picture thinking and give me good theology. It’s not easy to read consistently when you have a wild to-do list. The tyranny of the urgent is a powerful thing.
Therefore I was surprised when I met people who pushed back on “Leaders read.” “Screw reading, it’s time to take action,” was the general idea. It struck me as a weird assumption, that reading and learning were at odds with getting stuff done.
Maybe for some people it’s true. They read and read and get big heads and accomplish little. Don’t blame that on the books. Some people eat and eat and get big guts and accomplish little. We don’t blame it on the food.
In my life, when I get serious about accomplishing something, that’s when I start reading about it. And I can only assume this is true for thousands of leaders, who don’t see any contradiction between learning about something as you try to do it.
That’s why writers should read voraciously. More than any other type of creator or entrepreneur. You can learn about architecture in a textbook. And you can learn about architecture by touring remarkably gorgeous buildings.
You see where I’m going with this, right?
You can learn about writing in a writing craft book—and you should. You can also learn about writing by touring remarkably gorgeous books. With your eyes open. Paying attention to the structure, the style, the dialog. Taking notes. This type of guided tour is probably even more important than a great craft book like Stephen King’s On Writing or James Scott Bell’s Just Write. Because a craft book breaks things down, shows you the skeleton and guts, and gives you tools. But an incredible story—like an amazing theater or skyscraper—inspires with its essence.
So writers should read, in our genres and outside them. We should set audacious reading goals on Goodreads, even if we fail to meet them. We shouldn’t be afraid of authors who make us feel, professionally speaking, like toddlers. With finger paints. Who no one’s heard of. (Looking at you, Megan Whalen Turner.)
Our style gains texture and nuance from every book we read and love—regardless of genre—as long as we pay attention. For me, that means reading crime novels and literary fiction as well as middle grade. All those authors on my shelves are adding to my range and voice.
It blows my mind when I meet aspiring authors who don’t have time to read. In effect, it’s saying, “Screw books, it’s time to write one.” Which to me, at least, seems pretty self-defeating.
I drafted my first novel in 2013. This week, I finished overhauling it. I wasn’t sure I’d ever pull it off. Seven years ago, I didn’t have the writing jones to carry the story. Today, I do…because I broke down and embraced this fairly self-evident truth, that writers read.