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Where have all the well-read writers gone?

Once upon a time reading was the fertile bed for emerging writers. The two were inexorably linked and their natural habitats were public libraries and bookstores. Many came from homes where reading was a priority. Others had teachers or librarians who knew how books could release the imagination. Life is different now. So are the folks who want to write. Unfortunately, today it’s all too common to hear writers admit they don’t read. Frankly, I find this wrong on so many levels.

The idea of a writer not being a reader is such a contradiction. It goes to the heart of why someone would want to become a writer. At its most basic, a person who writes wants to capture their thoughts, feelings, expressions, and ideas. Journal writing fulfills that need. After that most writing ultimately requires a reader in order to achieve its fullness of expression. At their core, writers have a need and/or desire to communicate and these storytellers require an audience to complete the circle. If a writer doesn’t read, doesn’t like to read, why on earth would he or she want to work in a medium that requires readers? Why would they expect anyone else to read what they write? And how do they support their industry if they don’t read and if they don’t buy books?  

Today the visual reigns supreme in movies, videos, games, etc. Illiteracy rates continue to climb and the culture seems less and less intent on prizing the skill of knowing how to read. The classics have fallen away or have been dumbed down to the point where the few young readers who make the effort fail to gain their full import. Learning how to read has been reduced to recognizing a group of letters without gaining an understanding of the more advanced reading skills dealing with comprehension, context, subtext, and other subtleties.

Writers who don’t read come to the table empty-handed. They have no idea of the conversations that exist between writers and their readers and amongst writers from one generation to the next. That loss can lead writers to make mistakes and wrong assumptions in their pursuit of the craft. How can they weigh their ideas for originality when they’re clueless as to what’s gone on before? How can they identify clichés? How can they participate in the ongoing conversation when they aren’t privy to it? 

Writers who do read come with embedded knowledge gained from years of reading. They’ve been engaged with authors who sought to communicate ideas and create worlds built on words, sentences, and paragraphs. They understand the dance of white space. They take in the natural rhythms and inhabit a variety of worlds, hear different voices. They’ve soaked in craft without realizing it. They have an innate understanding of what a reader wants because they’ve been one. When they take up their walking stick, they start much further down the writing path toward their goal.

Movies are high value in the culture today. I understand that even though I seldom watch them. If I see any, they’re at least 2-3 years old and on cable. It’s been eight years since I’ve gone to see a movie. While I have enjoyed the experience, it’s not one I tend to want to repeat. I am a book person. I love being surrounded by books, revel in experiencing them and having my imagination fully engaged in the way only books can do. I willingly return to books to repeat the experience. That said, I spent two years studying screenplays and analyzing films, and I continue to keep up with the form. We are, after all, a visual culture and my readership has been imprinted with those storytelling techniques. So why are writers neglecting the very foundation of their craft?

Most writers are not as skilled in reading as they were when I was young and, unfortunately, either they don’t understand the need or don’t have the desire to develop their reading skills. They don’t know or don’t care that their lack of reading has an impact on their development as a writer and on the stories they create. If you fall into one of those categories, perhaps you’d like to give this reading thing a try. There are books that can guide you and offer suggestions on where to start. Why not create a New Year’s resolution to take up reading but do it with a defined purpose: Read to learn your craft. 


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  • claudine

    Beautifully said! Makes me newly appreciative that my mother instilled a love of reading in me. When, as a family, we did large projects, such as canning, one person was always the designated reader. I loved those times.
    Claudine

  • claudine

    Beautifully said! Makes me newly appreciative that my mother instilled a love of reading in me. When, as a family, we did large projects, such as canning, one person was always the designated reader. I loved those times.
    Claudine

  • http://lillieammann.com/blog Lillie

    Vikk,
    I can’t imagine anyone—but especially a writer—who doesn’t read. I always thought reading was the first step toward writing.

  • http://lillieammann.com/blog Lillie

    Vikk,
    I can’t imagine anyone—but especially a writer—who doesn’t read. I always thought reading was the first step toward writing.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/vikksimmons Vikk Simmons

    What a great memory, C. Thanks!
    Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be the case today. Even 5-10 years ago I had students in my classes telling me they didn’t read. I thought it was strange then. I do think sooner or later it’s helpful for those who haven’t been interested in reading to embark on a reading program if they want to fully embrace their craft. It always feels like a disconnect when I hear a writer say they don’t read. But I guess it’s a disconnect for me when someone tells me they don’t read or like to read. It’s been such a boon in my life.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/vikksimmons Vikk Simmons

    What a great memory, C. Thanks!
    Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be the case today. Even 5-10 years ago I had students in my classes telling me they didn’t read. I thought it was strange then. I do think sooner or later it’s helpful for those who haven’t been interested in reading to embark on a reading program if they want to fully embrace their craft. It always feels like a disconnect when I hear a writer say they don’t read. But I guess it’s a disconnect for me when someone tells me they don’t read or like to read. It’s been such a boon in my life.

  • http://kimberlyloomis.wordpress.com/ Kimberly Loomis

    Great post and, unfortunately, so very accurate. What I also find particularly vexing is the absurdity of authors ONLY reading the genre in which they are writing in. It is unbearably narrow in scope and acts as a limiter in capability- at least in my opinion.
    ~Kimberly

  • http://kimberlyloomis.wordpress.com/ Kimberly Loomis

    Great post and, unfortunately, so very accurate. What I also find particularly vexing is the absurdity of authors ONLY reading the genre in which they are writing in. It is unbearably narrow in scope and acts as a limiter in capability- at least in my opinion.
    ~Kimberly

  • http://profile.typepad.com/vikksimmons Vikk Simmons

    I agree Kimberly, I think a writer can learn a lot reading out of their genre. And Lillie, until the last ten years or so I would have thought the same thing. But in my classes I had so many new writers confess to never having read and still not reading. It always struck me as odd.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/vikksimmons Vikk Simmons

    I agree Kimberly, I think a writer can learn a lot reading out of their genre. And Lillie, until the last ten years or so I would have thought the same thing. But in my classes I had so many new writers confess to never having read and still not reading. It always struck me as odd.

  • http://thewritershole.blogspot.com Christine H

    I don’t read much, but it’s mainly because I can’t find books I enjoy. I recently went to the library and picked up four books in genres I don’t usually read, daring myself to stretch my horizons a little, along with a familiar classic. Every single one of the new books had some kind of shocking violence, overuse of profanity, or graphic sexual content in the first few chapters, all of which I find both offensive and unnecessary. I skimmed the ending of one and returned the rest without reading past the first chapters. I spent a lovely day curled up with the familiar classic.
    I am writing what I want to read, to fill a perceived void.

  • http://thewritershole.blogspot.com Christine H

    I don’t read much, but it’s mainly because I can’t find books I enjoy. I recently went to the library and picked up four books in genres I don’t usually read, daring myself to stretch my horizons a little, along with a familiar classic. Every single one of the new books had some kind of shocking violence, overuse of profanity, or graphic sexual content in the first few chapters, all of which I find both offensive and unnecessary. I skimmed the ending of one and returned the rest without reading past the first chapters. I spent a lovely day curled up with the familiar classic.
    I am writing what I want to read, to fill a perceived void.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/vikksimmons Vikk Simmons

    Stretching horizons is good and reading the classics is good. There will be books that turn you off in any genre. For a writer, the important thing is to be aware of what is being written and where and how you fit into the particular pool you’re swimming in. I think reading in your genre is equally important.
    Many reasons are given for writers to read today’s works. For me, publishing is my industry and I want to know what’s going on. I may not agree with a lot but it’s helpful to understand the dynamics.
    Reading for enjoyment is a bit different than reading to be knowledgeable about the industry and where you fit in. And certainly you learn a lot from reading the classics in addition to having the enjoyment of falling into a world you love.
    Writing to fill a void is an interesting reason to write and it’s not uncommon.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/vikksimmons Vikk Simmons

    Stretching horizons is good and reading the classics is good. There will be books that turn you off in any genre. For a writer, the important thing is to be aware of what is being written and where and how you fit into the particular pool you’re swimming in. I think reading in your genre is equally important.
    Many reasons are given for writers to read today’s works. For me, publishing is my industry and I want to know what’s going on. I may not agree with a lot but it’s helpful to understand the dynamics.
    Reading for enjoyment is a bit different than reading to be knowledgeable about the industry and where you fit in. And certainly you learn a lot from reading the classics in addition to having the enjoyment of falling into a world you love.
    Writing to fill a void is an interesting reason to write and it’s not uncommon.