Our Writing is Defined by Our Reading

This is an essay by C. Hope Clark.

As editor of FundsforWriters.com, a website recognized annually for eleven years by Writer’s Digest Magazine on its list of 101 Best Websites for Writers, I hear from many writers about their quandaries and dilemmas in becoming published. They want to understand the magic pill, the shortcut, or the mysterious talent needed to break in to writing, and land that elusive bestseller. For some reason, simply reading well and writing hard doesn’t seem to be that…reliable enough.

Since I consult and speak nationally, I now receive few questions I haven’t heard before, so my responses are already measured in many cases. For instance:

“How can I find an agent that will represent my poetry? I’ve heard that people don’t buy poetry anymore.”

My first question to these individuals who have asked this type question is this:

“How many poetry books have you bought and read this year?”

Surprisingly, most say none. One writer even responded with a resounding, “Touche!”

The world abounds with writers. Everyone wants his name, photo and title on a bookstore shelf, as a minimum on Amazon. But amazingly enough, most of them are not voracious readers. They are spitting out words, but taking few in. It’s like using a shotgun instead of a high-powered rifle. The result isn’t very refined, the results less satisfactory.

Many do not take in more than the occasional light read. I can tell this from their emails, their synopses, and their sample chapters. So can agents, editors and publishers. Reading teaches writing by the osmosis of absorbing so many words, hopefully, in their best usage. Being well-read in a genre teaches the author how to write the genre more proficiently than any conference or classroom teaching.

Let’s take it down to the elementary level. Teaching children to enjoy reading is, without a doubt, fast-tracking them to write well.  The slogan “reading is fundamental” is remarkably accurate. Somewhere along the line, however, between elementary school and college, reading falls by the wayside. Teaching to tests, however, and not enticing children to fall in love with words, has stolen their ability to perform later in life.

A few years ago, I interviewed teachers and students, at high school and college level, for a piece I wrote for VOYA Magazine (Voices of Youth Advocates). The children were frustrated they could not write as well as they thought once they reached college. Professors at universities were saddened at the rate these children failed, horribly debased because what they thought was talent in high school does not pass muster in college. The agony resounded from all parties, with the only finger-pointing done at high school teachers and the handicaps they endure from the “system.” A problem without a sound solution.

I read like a maniac, mainly in my genre, mystery. I read blogs, newsletters, magazines and books about my vocation as well, writing. I’ve learned that the more I digest, the better I write, both nonfiction and fiction. If I need more humor in my novel writing, I read Janet Evanovich. If I crave setting, I read Pat Conroy. If I need plot, I read Sue Grafton. For action, Lee Child. The result, after years of reading, writing, edits and more reading, is Lowcountry Bribe, by Bell Bridge Books, the first in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series. My novel, what I feel is a compilation of all the reading I could cram into my meager brain, has resulted into a solid piece of work based upon feedback and sales. I took fourteen years to write it.

Some of the most depressing words I’ve ever heard are these: “I don’t have the time to read.” Yet some of those people are attempting to write a book. And they will fail.

Behind the history of traditionally published books are the following efforts:

  • years of trial and error by the author

  • a hundred books or more read and absorbed by the author

  • a half dozen or more reviews by editors

  • educated decisions by publishers that the story, style and voice merit commercial value

Every task that these people poured into their books to bring them to fruition, is woven into the pages, paragraphs and sentences of the stories. The new writer, seeking means to publishing success, should jump at the chance to gobble up this expertise. That marriage of intelligence and toil can only improve a new writer’s chance to improve. And yet, so many stall capitalizing on this oh-so-easy method of honing their skills.

We don’t have the right to write, until we feel the need to read. And until we are torn between using our sacred few free moments to read a good book or to write a good story, we truly do not understand the importance of being well read in our journey to become a serious writer.

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C. Hope Clark is founder of FundsforWriters.com and author of Lowcountry Bribe, A Carolina Slade Mystery, available at Amazon (in print and on Kindle), Barnes & Noble, and Bell Bridge Books (www.bellbridgebooks.com). She publishes in trade publications, guest blogs, and speaks to writing conferences and writers groups across the country. www.fundsforwriters.com / www.chopeclark.com

Photo: Some rights reserved by Pascal Maramis

13 Replies to “Our Writing is Defined by Our Reading”

  1. Great post, Hope. You make so many good points here, and I think that final paragraph truly nails it for me. I battle, nearly every day, to carve out time for both reading and writing. When I have to choose only one, I get grumpy.  

  2. I totally agree with your article. The more we read, the wiser we become. When we enjoy a well-written book, it inspires us to write better prose. Thanks for the great advise.

    1.  Thanks, Elayne. Reading great prose just feels good, and as writers, we want others to feel the same when they experience our words. Just a fantastic cycle.

  3. This reminds me of some of the students in my beginning reporting classes: they wanted to have opinions and write editorials without bothering to learn the facts. And I was teaching journalism before the Internet shortened our attention spans. I’m never without a book. While I don’t read to learn how to write, my reading has been a continual learning process. Fun, too.

    Malcolm

    1.  Thanks for the insight, Malcolm. Reading regularly keeps sharp and presents us to the world in a much more respectable light.

  4. I so agree with this post, and I’d like to pat myself on the back for being writer who is also a voracious reaader. But to me, that would be like giving myself an “atta girl” for breathing or eating. Both reading and writing are just so key to my well-being that I’m cranky and less-than-fun to be around if I go more than a small stretch without making time for them. I can’t imagine being a writer who rarely reads. I learn so much about what to do – and not to do – by my reactions to others’ stories.

  5. Very well said, Hope, and so true that writers need to read. The flip side is that once we start writing there’s so much less time to read. I started a book club, which forces me to find snippets of reading time and to read a variety of genres even if I’m buried in a project. I learn something about writing with every book, magazine, blog, etc. that I read regardless of the genre. When reading my genre, I learn even more.

    Wishing you continued success with Lowcountry Bribe.

  6. Hi! Hope

    I’m new here. I’m 64 years old, and have always been an avid reader. I love to write as well. Reading a well written book is for me similar to listening to good music. It transports me to the depths of being which goes beyond word and thought. As a full time wife and mother and now grandmother, I consider reading both a close companion and a luxury that my chosen lifestyle has afforded me.

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