How Often Should Writers Read?

Since I was eleven I knew that my dream job would involve writing in some capacity. As of yet, I have only found time to write as a hobby, and as such I like to ask the tough questions while I mull over the writing craft (like the nerd that I am). The one on my mind at the moment: How much time should writers spend reading if they want to be good writers?

It doesn’t matter whether you want to write novels, textbooks, or sites. You will have to read some of the time to research, but do you read for pleasure also? And do you read to hone your own approach to your professional work? For every 30 minutes you write, how many minutes would it help you to read? I would be interested to know if Steven King reads as much as he writes. I would like to think so, but what if he reads more than he writes?

If you write then you most certainly read, or you’re probably a bad writer. Seems obvious enough, but I didn’t figure this out early on. As a youngster, I assumed that I would someday like to be a good writer, yet I thought reading others’ works was boring and tedious. Then, the more I read, the more I understood how complex good writing is. Just to learn the subtleties of the English language, for example:

i before e
except when you
run a feisty heist
on a weird beige
foreign neighbor

I got that from a meme. That’s really good writing though, isn’t it? While making you smile, it clearly states a peculiarity within the English language that we writers wrestle with. The meme is well-written. Someone was able to craft it after cultivating familiarity with English conventions, growing a healthy vocabulary, and understanding how to entertain others through words. Well-rounded amounts of frequent reading often improve these skills.

The written word is, after all, the medium writers are attempting to perform. But to what end? Writers want other people to read. It’s so much easier if the writer has recent personal experience reading because it is a good percentage of what they will do as they write. As you think up the words and type them out, how do you judge them? By reading them, of course. You either read them in your head before they make it into your text editor, or you read what you have typed. And the more you read, the more likely you can identify the good drafts from the bad ones.

Most of what I read I do intentionally to find application to my own writing. Writing and reading are important to make the practice enjoyable, challenging, and routine. If I expect others to enjoy what I have to share, I need to additionally form the practice of digesting their words. After all, it’s so easy to find great reads that others have to offer, why wouldn’t I want to read? It can’t hurt, and it is very likely that what I like to read will rub off on me so my writing style will improve. We writers communicate through a ‘voice’ that’s reminiscent of other writers we enjoy reading. So, if we don’t read, we lack the communicative power of personality-driven communication.

With the more reading you have under your belt, the better you see past the words to their rich meaning. From reading, you begin to see what works for you and what doesn’t. You consciously and subconsciously critique and compare — form opinions on the words you have absorbed. You identify writing styles you wish to avoid and assimilate the feel of the reads you love.

The inexperienced reader sits down to write and the ideas won’t flow through him. He gets writer’s block, so he thinks up misguided treatments for his inability to write. See, the assumption is that writer’s block is formed because a writer lacks inspiration. For this reason, some writers prefer to read to get their head and their heart in the game, but I’ve heard several writers say they do other things: wash dishes, go running, or even watch some television just to name a few of the diversions that are toyed with to boost inspiration.

These are all activities where you might incidentally discover some undigested inspiration, but they don’t directly assist your skill set as a writer. Which is harder for you to find: inspiration or expertise? The latter, I’m sure. Does the coffee roaster get better at his job if he takes time at work to go for a jog or watch TV? Of course not. And the writer will not hone his expertise either if he’s folding laundry or baking a cake.

I think what’s often the case is the writer lacks a meaningful relationship with the art of the written word. They don’t need inspiration from elsewhere. He simply lacks fresh experience with the craft of words on a page. A fresh take on the medium is helpful every day for the professional.

So, if it were up to me to make the call, I would say the writer ought to read almost as much as he writes at the very least. It serves two end goals very well. Primarily, reading fosters your understanding of language and verbal communication. It keeps the garden of your mind well-tended.

And additionally, as a byproduct of reading more than you perhaps consider beneficial, you will find a wide variety of inspiration for your own writing. Go figure, but it comes with added resources fed into your thought life. While you’re absorbing others’ ideas, you will discover opinions, facts, and truths that you haven’t considered before, or haven’t considered recently. Inspiration will bubble up to the top — to the forefront of your consciousness — while the craftsmanship of good writing will linger more heavily in your subconscious.

For these reasons, I try to strike a balance in my own life that I still need to hone and make routine. It should sound crazy to a lot of writers on the web, but I make it my practice to read for as long as I write. This way, I cultivate an ideal: toning my ability to put thoughts into meaningful words, and I find all the inspiration we writers desparately chase.

Thanks for reading.

Joe Darnell

Joe is a UI and graphic designer with prior experience as the creative director for three media-based businesses. Joe’s passionate about web design and graphic design with about 15 years of experience in the media industry. Additionally, Joe is the host of the Top Brew and Techtonic podasts, both featured on iTunes.