Monday, November 1, 2010

Reading for Profit

One of the key ingredients of advice to aspirant writers is to read.

The neophyte might then ask, what am I to read? Does it mean how-to books? Books written by the advisor? What?

My personal feeling is a writer should read the types of books he or she wishes to write. Most would-be writers are already readers. Inspired by the books they read for pleasure or edification, they strive to emulate, feeding both an innate need and a desire to share their thoughts and imaginings with others.

What moves a person to become a writer or engage in other creative activities is a matter for the psychologist and not our interest here. What is obvious is not every person who loves to read becomes or wants to become a writer. What is also obvious is the person who wants to write will eventually do so, regardless of advice or lack thereof.

I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t a reader. I think most of us would agree it was a love of reading that first stimulated our desire to write. But I’m constantly surprised by the number of writers who fail to profit by their reading. Some read only for entertainment. Others read for instruction. The good writer/reader can and should do both. And there are more than a few ways to profit. Reading properly can improve your writing ability, stimulate your creativity and put more dollars in your pocket.

How, then, should a writer read? The answer, of course, is alertly. No writer worth his/her salt should ever read without a notebook at hand.

As Dumas put it a long time ago: Writing can not be taught; it can only be learned. One learns, initially, by reading. Anything you read will influence your writing style, either consciously or subconsciously. That’s why many novelists refrain from reading while working on a book. However, it has been found that reading good writing can provide the impetus for recharging the creative juices when you’re stalled or suffering a block. Even junk can be beneficial, but if you want to do creative writing, then you should read the best writing available. You can improve your style, your language and rhythm by the subconscious influence of good literature.

Robert Louis Stevenson advised, “When you read a book or a passage you admire, immediately set yourself to aping it so that you may capture the flavor of it.”

Some might frown on this as plagiarism. But that wasn’t what RLS meant. What he suggested was a concept no different than the training methods of the great masters of art and music. Art imitates nature and, it follows, art imitates art as well. Stevenson felt by copying an admired passage one gained insight into what made it work.

Charles Nodier, a lesser known writer, suggested, “A writer should read until he is filled to the brim and like a pitcher which is over-filled overflows, and then he should write.”


  1. Good advice, John however I never have a notebook to hand (unless I'm doing research) I get carried away with the fiction reading.

  2. That's one thing I love about my Kindle. Not only can I read EVERYWHERE, but I can make notes all over my books.