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Why Every Good Writer Must Be a Great Reader
Every good writer must first be a great reader. It’s impossible to be one without the other. Ask any writers who are succeeding at their craft. They’ll be able to list a handful of authors who’ve inspired them and a few dozen more whose work they’re currently consuming. Reading is to writing what running a drill is to sports. As such, writers hone their skillsets through gleaning expertise from their peers. Reading stretches a writer’s mind. Becoming a great reader is the first step towards being a successful writer.
I ask budding scribes two questions. The first is, who are your favorite authors? Their answers often tell me more than they realize. If I hear names such as Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, or Harper Lee then I know that I’m likely talking to a person who only reads what was assigned in school. I can clarify this by asking which stories or novels stood out, and more often than not they answer by listing the tried and true high school classics. There’s nothing wrong with the great works. The problem is that a person who only reads what’s been assigned to them lacks the literary curiosity that makes writers thrive.
The second question I ask hopeful writers is, which works are you reading now? I hope to hear the names of a few authors that are working today. I’m thrilled when I hear someone say they consume every book in a certain genre, and I admire anyone who admits to reading whatever is recommended to them. What makes me cringe is hearing postulant writers state that they don’t have time to read. If someone doesn’t have time to read then they don’t have time to be a successful writer.
My favorite answer to the aforementioned questions is also my advice to every writer I meet. That answer is, “I read everything.” I believe that curious readers make for the most interesting writers. Writers whose bookshelves know no boundaries produce works that employ the best of all genre conventions. One can find engaging, powerful, and resonating writing in a wide range of fiction or nonfiction works and the best writers amongst us are able to harness them all.
First and foremost, I implore all writers to read a multitude of works in the genre they hope to publish in. This means that the milestone works should be read, but it’s more important for modern writers to read what’s being celebrated today. They should be reading both the widely consumed and rightfully celebrated works being published right now. It means picking up “best of” collections and perusing the works of up and coming authors. It means recognizing the touch points that contemporary publishers favor.
Next, I tell writers to read decorated works from other genres. A well-written romance novel may inspire a hopeful mystery writer more than another tired “who-done-it” book. The same is true of a wishful horror author who explores what esteemed literary fiction has to offer. Nonfiction is often celebrated based upon its ability to relay true stories that are fast-paced, page turners, and so why wouldn’t those aspirant writers read the thrillers that are flying off the bookstore shelves?
I also recommend that writers read critical or analytical writing. I forward great opinion pieces to anyone I think will appreciate them, and I spend time on any given day devouring media reviews. Certainly I do so because I enjoy these styles of writing, but I’ve learned more from this writing than I once thought possible. These styles of writing grab one’s attention quickly, summarize thoughts concisely, and articulate a conclusion definitively. What more could we ask of them? And what great tricks of the trade we can learn from them!
The secret to learning those tricks is the same regardless of what you’re reading—we must reflect upon what we’ve read and harvest its knowledge. In writing and in life, I call the reflection process “succeeding on purpose.” When we analyze good writing and apply those concepts in the future, we begin to recognize that success could occasionally be happenstance, but more often than not it’s the result of applying the wisdom we’ve acquired.
By becoming reflective readers we can realize what makes compelling works, well, compelling. We can appreciate what makes characters sympathetic, flawed, or redemptive. We can point out what caused us to keep reading or how earlier plot points paid later dividends. We can show how a conclusion can make or break an otherwise great work.
There are so many factors that make a writer successful, and being a great reader is often the first step that’s overlooked. My fellow writers, I implore you to become voracious readers. It’ll help to both attune your ear and hone your voice for the future stories you’ll write.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.