Is it important for authors to read?

I believe it is, and here’s why.

“I can’t read books without mimicking that author when I write.” Then there is the famous time complaint. “I don’t have time to read because I’m too busy writing.” I’ve heard the excuses, and I understand how they feel. I used to think the same. While I’ve heard other reasons for authors not reading, these seem to be the most popular. I say malarkey to both, and following is what I’ve learned that made me change my view.

I can’t say much about being too busy to read. We’ve all been there. What I will say is that if you truly want to read, you can find the time. How is it you can spend time with your family with all the chores that need to be done around the house? How do you find time to walk your dog or play with your pets when you hold down a full-time job and write only on your time off work? You make time for it.

Same can be said for reading. You may not be able to read through an entire novel in a day or two, but if you want to read, you can find a few minutes here and there. It will just take you longer to finish the book. There’s no shame in that. Savor all the details. You’ll be glad you did. Well, assuming it is a good book.

Next is the big can of worms. I debated heavily over how to address it. There are so many angles from which to attack this question. I could spend days discussing just one option, or I could try to briefly cover multiple angles. I could take a scientific view with little reasoning behind the why. That option was out of the question because that defeats the purpose of this blog. Although it would have made for a short article! Yes, it is important for authors to read. Do it. You will become a better writer. Next tip… I’ll to try to meet in the middle and talk about the main grumbles I hear most regarding style and influence.  

I cringe when I hear an author say they don’t read the genre they write because they lose their own style and copy the style of the author they read. I used to think this as well, but as I gained more experience examining details through editing, I began to see the significance of reading more in order to write better.

There is much to be learned from what others have written. It not only can teach you what to do well, it can teach you what others are reading and why they like certain authors more than others. It dawned on me that even reading bad writing can teach what not to do. The importance is to understand the difference and learn how to channel the important stuff.

Do you think you lose your own writing style when you read? This is where things can get tricky. Writing style is unique to each writer. Think of writing as your voice in written form. You may prefer to tell a story from your point of view and write in first person narrative. You may be the type of author who has characters in your head leading your prose.  Or you may be the type who prefers to research an idea, form an outline, then write the story from the outline. There is no wrong or right way to do it. Each method has its pros and cons. Do what works best for you.

What does any of that have to do with reading? Writing a story is a personal affair. The style that comes out is going to be yours. Nobody else speaks in your voice. You speak in no other author’s voice. Each author is unique. Some may be similar, but that is okay. They are not exactly the same. Here is where influence comes into play in a good way. Read strong authors and you will gain strong influence. You cannot write with their voice any more than you can speak with their vocal cords.

If you think you are writing too much like an author you just read, stop and ask yourself these questions. Does what I wrote copy the exact plot they wrote? Did what I wrote sound like something I would say if relating the story to another person? Did I capture my characters’ voices and mannerisms well? If you answered no to the first question and yes to the others, then you have not written in the other author’s style. You may have shown their influence in your writing, but the style is yours.

As I said earlier, style is unique. Influence is what you take from your surroundings. Many confuse this with copying someone else. That doesn’t really convey the whole story.  Influence can be good or bad, depending on which parts shine through in your story. To put it in a different perspective, I’ll compare it to fashion. In this analogy, the current author is a shopper, the shirt is the story, the outfit is the writing style, the influence being the origin of the shirt or the common reason for buying it.

When a shopper enters a store, they see the same shirt in many different sizes. Most, if not all, are going to be sold at some point. That means several people are going to own and wear the same shirt. Will it look exactly the same on the person who bought the extra-small as it looks on the one who bought the extra-large? Probably not. Extra-small might wear it with a skirt. Extra-large might wear it with slacks, while Medium may choose to wear the shirt with jeans. The outfit will be different even though the shirts are the same. Why? Because they each chose a different style outfit to pair with it.

But why did shoppers decide to buy the same shirt? Because this shirt is like the one they saw an actress wear in a movie they all recently watched. They were influenced by what they saw and liked. None of the shoppers look like that actress, yet all now own the same shirt. None wear it the same way, but it looks great on each of them.

In much the same way, reading influences writing. People read for different reasons. They each get something different from a story that sticks with them. That doesn’t mean it is a bad story. That doesn’t mean these people are all the same. It means they are influenced differently by something that is the same. The outcome is similar, but never exactly the same because each person is unique. Just like each writing style.  

Now let’s look at the negative aspect. You see a picture in a magazine of a model on the red carpet. The dress she is wearing is something you deem a monstrosity on her.  The colors don’t flatter her skin tone. The size is too big and it looks like it could fall off.  On closer examination, however, the dress itself is not all that bad on its own.

Seeing one on a mannequin in your favorite store, you decide to try it on for fun. Wow! The dress looks great on you. You decide to purchase it and accessorize it with a scarf in a color that is flattering to your body type. Seeing that model in the dress influenced you to do something a little different with the same dress. You took what was good about it and made it better suit your needs.

The same thing goes for reading bad writing. You learn from what they did that you did not like and used the parts you did to make them work for you. Readers may read your book and see similarities to the bad one, but you get a good review and the other story gets a bad review.

If you never read, you deprive yourself of possible good influences. You also deprive yourself of learning what readers enjoy. Once you understand your style is only ever going to be yours, you can learn how to use the influences you read to improve your own work. If you don’t read, you don’t grow. You have no influence to make you strive to become a better author. I believe this is why many authors get stuck in a rut. They stopped reading.

The more you read, the more influences you draw from to improve your work. If you never read, you will eventually hit a wall where you run out of ideas. You may find it difficult to sell your stories, because you don’t really have an understanding of what people like to read.  Just because you notice a genre is selling a lot of books doesn’t mean you can just publish any story in that genre, and it will sell. People like what they like, and they buy the stories that contain those topics. The best way to learn what people like is to read the same books they read.  Learn what those authors are doing that draws readers to their books. 

How can you do this and still be you? Confidence. Confidence comes with experience. Remember those first few letters you wrote as a child? How did you stop writing in large sloppy strokes for every letter? You learned by continuing to carefully write the same letters again and again. Eventually, you probably began putting your own spin on how certain letters are formed. This became your handwriting style. So too will your stories become your own style. You will continue to be influenced by your surroundings, including what you read, but the writing will only grow stronger with experience. Your confidence will grow, and your style will get stronger and more recognizable as your own, even if those outside influences are noticed. They don’t have to be a bad thing. It all comes down to how you use those influences.

If you never get dressed by yourself, you never learn to put on clothes. If you never read, you eventually stop growing because you have no influence to draw from. If you shut out all the available material, you can’t be open to new ideas.

Sure, you may end up writing a horror novel that reads like a Stephen King or Dean Koontz book, but is that really such a bad thing? The more horror novels you write, the more you make them your own. If you don’t like that something reads so much like another author, don’t publish it. Put it in a file for later when you are more confident in your work. You may be able to rewrite it in a manner that more suits your current style. The important part is that you took the step of writing it in the first place.

You can’t jump from zero to millions sold in one leap and maintain that level of success for hundreds of books.  Sure, every writer dreams of that type of breakthrough, but the fact is that it is beyond rare. Even the overnight successes seldom find staying power when they hit big with the first thing they write. Then there are those who are beyond talented who never get their material seen outside a small circle of fans. They keep writing because ultimately, they write for their own love of doing it.

The point here is not to sell yourself short by refusing to read because you don’t want to be influenced by other authors. Influence is good when used properly. It helps you grow. It helps you improve. If you can’t improve, then it is time to question if writing is the right career choice. Perhaps writing is just a hobby, and that is okay too. Just be mindful of your expectations. And don’t forget to make time to read!

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