“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
— Stephen King
Everyone, it seems, wants to be a writer these days (present company included).
The advances in technology over the past two decades has flattened the publishing world to the point that anyone can share their thoughts on a blog, microblog, whatever. You can even publish an entire book – either paperback or ebook – for free.
But just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should do it. And not everyone should write a book. There are plenty of people who I’d put into that category, but there is one group I’d place at the top of the list above all others: those that do not read.
In order to be successful in any field or endeavor, it is imperative to know what you’re doing. You can’t teach a physics class if you don’t understand physics and you can’t be an accountant if you’ve never studied accounting. Similarly, you can’t realistically expect to write a book if you don’t read books, but it seems like people really want to skip this vital step.
While it is impossible to overstate the power of reading, in my experience there are four distinct ways in which reading helps writing. After all, if you don’t read books, why would you be so conceited to believe that others should read yours?
When do you start a new paragraph? How do you write out someone’s age (is it “12-year-old” or “12 year-old” or “12 year old”)? When is it “and I” versus “and me”? By reading, the answers to these questions become ingrained because you see them repeatedly and when it’s time for you to put your own words on the paper, they become second nature. As you learn the rhythm of language, you know when to add a comma or when to end a paragraph. In addition to grammar, reading greatly improves your spelling and your vocabulary by introducing you to new words that you either have to look up or discern from context clues, the latter of which makes you a better critical thinker.
Including references, quotes, and anecdotes from other books allows a writer to tie separate books and authors together to make larger, more overarching points that lend an air of gravitas to your work. This is especially true for nonfiction, but it helps for fiction as well. By employing characters, locales, and even dialogue that refers or even alludes to other works gives your own writing a bit more heft.
One of the greatest ways reading helps writing is in content creation. The more you read, the more ideas, hypotheses, and arguments you encounter and, if you’re an active reader engaging with the text, the more thoughts and opinions you’ll have to say about those encounters. These opinions could take the form of a rebuttal to a point – my latest book is basically a collection rebuttal essays and Medium has made this part of its basic layout with responses – or they could be used to expand upon something small – my recent 2,000-word piece on the 1980’s Houston Rockets would-be dynasty came from a single paragraph at the end of a chapter in Tip-Off, a book about the impact and legacy of the 1984 NBA Draft. You can take previous ideas and create them into something new in fiction, as well. How else would we get Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Nas said, “No Idea’s Original” while Jay-Z told Nas, “you made it a hot line, I made it a hot song” after borrowing his line for a chorus. If it’s good enough for two of the greatest hip-hop artists in history, it’s good enough for the rest of us.
If you don’t read anything else, how do you know if what you write is any good? How do you know if it’s formatted correctly? How do you know if it’s a unique take? There’s nothing worse than writing something only to discover that not only has someone else covered the same exact ground, but did so better than you. One of the best pieces of advice is to “Write the book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet,” but if you never crack a book, how do you know what has and has not been written?
Of all the gadgets stored in the writer’s utility belt, few are as important as being well-read.
Christopher Pierznik’s eight books are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.