Writers Are First Readers

Bookshelf

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When someone tells me he wants to be a writer, the first thing I say is that he has to be a reader first. Well, okay I’m not that quick, but it is the first thing I should tell him at any rate. I don’t know if it is at all possible to be an effective writer without first doing a lot of reading. I don’t mean just reading for fun, although that is the primary thing. If reading isn’t fun for someone, why in the world would that someone ever want to write? It would be like someone who hates food wanting to be a chef. Reading provides not only the motivation to write but a lot of the education to do so.

Let’s take a fiction writer for instance. Reading a lot of good fiction helps the writer understand what makes good fiction–just as reading bad fiction shows what to avoid. Writers ultimately write what they would like to read. Most people like to read good fiction. Therefore, if they have some skill, they can glean from others what they themselves enjoy and re-create it for their readers. Reading a variety of authors and genres provides the ability to develop an individual voice. I dare say if all I ever read was Faulkner, I might lean toward the tendency to write in a similar manner by stretching and stretching my sentences until they reach the equivalent length of a common paragraph under the pen of other authors who broaden their perspective by engaging a larger pool of literary resources. Reading not only helps us hear other writers’ voices, it enhances our vocabulary–at least for those who have the perspicacity to recognize that benefit (somebody is going to learn a word today), and it exercises our imagination. These are critical to good writing.

Reading is essential for other reasons as well. The discipline needed to sit for long periods of time turning the pages of a book is precisely the discipline required to write one. If a person can not be bothered to invest hours reading, how will they ever invest even more time in writing. The time it takes to read a paragraph is likely a fraction of the time it took the writer to create it.

We read for information, for research. It is possible to only write about personal experiences, but it is not practical to expect not to need additional information from other sources to validate or expand on those experiences for the reader. In The Falcon Dirk, for example, I had the personal experience of standing in the Trinity Library Long Room in Dublin. I saw the magnificent shelves of books. I walked the length of the room and gazed up at the barreled ceiling almost three stories above my head. But I had to read a good deal to discover the history of the library, what books were on those shelves and how they got there. I can tell you that reading the non-fiction accounts of that place was as enjoyable as writing the fictional story that employed the information. The key to writing the book itself, however, was the hours I had spent previously reading the pages of adventure stories and mysteries from my youth up.

So if you tell me that you want to write, I will tell that first you must want to read. You need to be found often with a book in your hands. When I see a young person who enjoys reading, I know that the seeds are there for that person to write something one day that I may enjoy reading myself. And we all should hope that will be the case, because if readers do not become writers, what then will there be to read?

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