Thursday 14 June 2012

The importance of reading as a writer

I recently read an excellent blog post by Anne Rooney entitled 'Can you teach creative writing?' to which Mary Hoffman made a very pertinent comment when she said that she asks students what books do they like reading? And this got me thinking about the importance of reading when you are a writer.

I mentioned in a couple of posts ago how I use poetry to get my creative juices flowing again. Most recently it has been Ian Wedde's work (thank you JW for the introduction) but it has also been Okri, Rilke and Milosz amongst others in the recent past. I am a poet trollope. I find one I love. Read everything by them then abandon them recklessly when I have found someone new, irrespective of their feelings. (I do return to them eventually so hope they forgive me). That is only one small part of how important reading is to me as a writer.

I think it is important to read books in the genre that you write in but I also believe that you should challenge yourself and read things that are outside your comfort zone. I have previously said when I started my writing career I had a very definite idea of what sort of writer I was. It was only having the opportunity, during my BA and then MA, to try on lots of different styles of writing and voices that I actually found out what sort of writer I was. Interestingly it wasn't even close to the one I thought I was! I now find myself writing thrillers - I didn't even read thrillers before but it was only by challenging myself that I found out. (A distinct advantage of doing a CW degree)

If you write for children, as I do, you also need to read in and around your age group so you have an understanding of what works and what is appropriate for the age. It is good to keep an eye on what is being successful and winning prizes but don't be afraid to write your own stuff. Don't think you have to copy, in fact, it is important that you don't (obviously copyright helps with this!) Of course, it is almost impossible to predict what is going to be the next 'big thing.' (Or we would all be very rich if we could). Just write what you want to but understand the market place.

Go back and read the classics, read adult books as well as children's, in other words, read vociferously because as Mary Hoffman, quite correctly in my opinion, suggests it will give you a solid base of understanding what is possible. Going back to the quote I mentioned in the previous post from Scorsese it helps with working out what you like and what you don't like, what works for you and what doesn't.

I have heard some people say they can't read whilst writing as they are afraid of  it influencing their work, which I can partly understand, but also have to be honest, it has never happened to me instead I find it inspirational. However you approach reading and whatever you read, it doesn't matter as long as you do. I have a 'to read' pile which is probably as tall as me (admittedly I am quite short) but I keep dipping into it and satisfying the reader and the writer in me. I hope you do too...

Thanks to Imogen Cooper for this, such a wonderfully gentle song: Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell singing 'Hares on the Mountain'


  1. Yes, reading is absolutely critical to developing as a writer. I actually wrote the York Notes A level guide to McEwan's Atonement precisely so that I could be paid to take the novel apart, word by word, and see how it worked while I was trying to write something that I thought needed a similar style. In the end, I decided it didn't - but spending 6 weeks analysing one novel was phenomenally useful. Even more so because there was no other criticism of it (except a few book reviews) so it was just me and the text.

    I think people are interested in critical reading, whether or not they want to be writers. I have run a critical reading group (funded by the Royal Literary Fund) for two years in Cambridge and people are very keen. And now that's coming to an end, I know I will miss it, so I'm starting a new Stroppy Author blog called How to Read Books (coming soon!).

    That's really interesting, Ness, that you started to write thrillers when you had not previously read them.

  2. Can't wait for your new blog!
    Yes I was very surprised when I realised the story was a thriller and looking back at my other stories there is always a thriller element in there. I have obviously have a secret dark side!

  3. I've never understood why people say they can't read while they're writing. For me it's vital if only to keep stories alive in my head. Somehow the act of reading fuels my own creativity - not by directly influencing the words I write, but by freeing my imagination I think. Great post and beautiful rainbow library! I want one! x

    1. I want a rainbow library too!
      I agree totally about the act of reading fueling creativity. I can't imagine not reading when I am writing. It helps keep the head clear. The 'what if' moment came when I was reading something totally different and it bore no relation to it whatsoever. Maybe by reading I am giving my unconscious a few moments to think and come up with stuff too. Thanks Sue x