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Can Reading Great Books Really Help Writers Grow?

I talk about growth a lot on my blog. In fact, if you haven’t noticed, I'm pretty passionate about it. I want to keep growing in my writing skill. I continuously challenge myself to improve. It’s my hope to encourage you to do the same.

There are numerous ways writers can grow. Obviously, first and foremost we need to be consistently writing. In fact, I recommend that beginners write the first book for themselves, enjoy the process, and let creativity have full freedom. We often don’t know what we need to learn until we start putting words on the page.

However, the act of writing in and of itself is not enough to help us grow. Eventually, we need to couple it with learning.

If we’re learning how to cook, we have to step in the kitchen and begin with basics. But if we hope to grow in skill, we need to pull out cookbooks, turn on the cooking channel, and go beyond boxed macaroni and hotdogs. We have to experiment, try new recipes, and get help from those who are further along. We’ll have trial and errors, sometimes food only worthy for the dog dish. But eventually, with the combination of practice and learning, we’ll be able to create edible, even palatable dishes.

Writers have to move beyond just the act of writing if we hope to improve our skills. We can read how-to books, go to conferences, participate in online workshops and classes, and get feedback from critique partners or contests.

But what about learning from the books we read? I’ve heard some writers argue that THE best way to learn how to write is by reading “great books.” Some writers believe we need to read voraciously and widely within and outside of our genres in order to grow.

Is reading “great books” really the best way for writers to learn the craft? Will reading voraciously really make us better writers?

I believe reading “great books” can be one way to help us grow. And I also believe reading voraciously can help us too. But . . . most writers DON’T grow from their reading experiences and here are few reasons why:

1. Great books can teach us only if we’re willing to become a student.

My kids and I recently finished The Bronze Bow by Newbery Medal author Elizabeth George Speare. As we were reading I was particularly aware of the way she developed character arcs and used symbolism.

I made a point of studying her techniques and discussing them with my children. But how many of us consciously study books when we read them? Most of the time we read for pleasure and our brains don’t stop to analyze writing techniques. If we hope to learn from the masters, we have to intentionally become a student.

2. The act of reading well doesn’t transfer into the act of writing well.

As I’ve said before, the effortlessness of reading does not easily transfer to the painstaking-process of putting words on paper. Just because someone is a voracious reader doesn’t mean they will be able to write well. Fellow blogger Julie Nilson said this in a recent comment: “The WORST manuscript I ever read was by a high school lit teacher (really!), so it's not like she hasn't read great writing.”

3. The definition of what constitutes “great books” is subjective.

I’m a part of a literature discussion group. We read plenty of "great books"—classics, myths, and award-winning authors. Among these “great books" we have a wide variety of responses. I'm always amazed when I think a book is completely worthless and someone else loves it, or vice versa.

In compiling reading programs for my children over the years, I’ve run across numerous lists (i.e. One Hundred Great Books, Books Everyone Should Read, etc.). While there might be some overlap, the lists are always different and ever-changing.

How do we decide which books are "great" and worthy to be our teachers? Is it even possible to come to a consensus? Should we even try?

4. Many of the past “great books” use out-dated writing techniques.

If I emulated the style of writing in Little Women or Treasure Island (both of which I’ve read), I would have no hope for publication in today’s market. The writing styles of a hundred, fifty, even ten years ago have changed. While I may be able to learn something about what constitutes good story-telling from the classics, that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to learn how to write commercially viable fiction from them.

My Summary: Yes, we can learn how to write better by reading other books—if we’re intentional. But reading fiction is not THE only way or even necessarily THE best way. It can comprise part of our learning process. But we need more than “great books” and voracious reading to help us become better writers.

We need a well-rounded writing apprenticeship that involves a variety of learning experiences.

Your turn! What's your opinion? What place do you give "great books" in your writing education? Do you think reading "great books" or reading voraciously is the best way to learn? Or do you give more credence to other methods of learning?

31 comments:

  1. I think it's PART of growing as a writer. I think it's a necessary part. Even if I'm not consciously becoming a student, something happens when I read. It refuels my creativity and fills me up so when I sit down in front of that dreaded blank page, the words come a bit more easily.

    And even though, in my earlier years, I never read as a student, I was able to write my first novel. Never having read a craft book or taken a creative writing class in my life. I knew how to write fiction because I read fiction. Granted, it there were many, many flaws. But I still knew how to craft a story.

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  2. If we just read for pleasure then no, we might not learn as much. But I've read a lot of craft books which don't necessarily transfer over either. The best way for me has been to read current books and study/analyze them. I've learned more from seeing techniques in action then reading a book telling me how to do it. That coupled with blog posts has been terrific.

    So I guess it depends on how you read great books.

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  3. You´re totally correct. We have to read intentionally.
    It´s funny, because I posted the thing with reading, today on my blog. I think reading is very important, but i have to admit, that I try to understand, how the author writes, when I´m reading. I study, how she/he writeshis characters...
    Not everybody is doing.

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  4. and I think Laura Pauling is right, too :)

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  5. You are what you eat.
    You write what you read.
    Yes, reading "great" books will help us be better writers. But as you have said, "great" is subjective. I write realistic middle-grade fiction, therefore, I read a lot of realistic middle-grade fiction. And I don't just read it because I write it, I read it because I love it, too.
    But as you have said, reading in our genre alone won't make us good writers, but it does help.

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  6. Someone once told me he wasn't allowing himself to read a novel until he finished writing the one he was working on (his first). Ironically, when I'm writing heavily I also have great reading frenzies. I listen to audio books during exercise, housework and mundane activities. I find that when I listen, as opposed to reading, I am much more aware of what is strong or weak about the author's writing. I sometimes listen to successful authors (as opposed to "great books") specifically to discover what I can learn about what makes their books work and what takeaway there might be for me.

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  7. You make a great point when you highlight that what worked then doesn't always work now. I just finished F. Scott Fitzgerald's THIS SIDE OF PARADISE and I found myself so annoyed that his editor, the great Max Perkins, didn't slash the first 50 pages of backstory in that book. Once the story started it was magnificent, but it took quite some time to get there.

    Great post, as always!

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  8. Jody,
    Can you read minds? I was just thinking about this very topic a few days ago. You hit on so many good points.

    I've also found that beginning writers have to be very selective about what they read, as they tend to emulate it in their own writing.

    Great post!

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  9. Great Post Jody! I agree, there is a relationship between reading and writing. For me, reading fills the well and sparks my creativity but it's also how I discovered my inner writer. I recognized early on that I read stories differently from my friends. I always took notice of how authors developed their stories and admired the mechanics. I'm the same way now, always taking notes on a good movie or soundtrack, a good tv show, even my kid's cartoons. For me, there's always something more I can learn.

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  10. I agree--if we have a learning spirit and think about why we liked or didn't like a book, then reading will help us grow.

    A few months ago I read Laura Frantz's Courting Morrow Little, and even while I was reading it I couldn't stop analyzine it! Like, how did she know just when to put this hint in, and what a magnificent job of setting up motivation. For me, reading is learning!

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  11. I agree that we need a variety of learning methods as we learn to write. I had read more great books than most during my time in grad school. Still, when I started writing novels myself, my style was clumsy and primitive.

    Reading great novels taught me storytelling and pacing.

    I had to learn contemporary style and close POV from other writers, through craft books and critique.

    Reading plays taught me characterization and scene structure.

    Reading poetry taught me symbolism and rhythm.

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  12. Good post, Jody.

    I think I learn most from non-fiction, reading about writing. My eyes get wide, and I absorb so many new tips and tricks and methods. But I think what makes me actually appreciate said advice is when I notice it in a novel that I'm reading. To see it in action makes it real, gives me an idea of how it can actually work. So they work in tandem, for me.

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  13. I believe reading recently published books in my sub-genre has helped me in my writing, but I tend to be a very analytical reader now that I'm writing. I'm selective in the books I read, gravitating to authors who do a great job with craft and story. I watch what they do and try to figure out why it certain elements of their stories work so well.

    My reading helps me in another way. I'm able to keep abreast of what kinds of stories are being published and to see emerging trends and shifts in style. Plus, by reading in my sub-genre, when it came time to list books that would be comparable to mine--one of the required sections in the proposal my agent sent to editors--I was able to come up with a number of titles.

    While I think reading is an important (and enjoyable) part of a writer's process, I agree that it's not the only element. I couple it with reading craft books, attending workshops and conferences, and seeking feedback from trusted sources such as my talented critique partners, agent, and publisher.

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  14. Hi everyone!! Some really great thoughts today! Once again, the diversity really shows how we all learn so differently. Overall, it sounds like most of us feel we need a variety of sources in order to get a complete learning experience.

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  15. Writing techniques have changed, but the need for great characters and stories doesn't change. That's what connects the past, present, and future of writing. Shakespeare--great characters, great stories; Cervantes--great characters, great stories; Jane Austen--same! The delivery changes, and that's all.

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  16. I think that we have to use a combination of methods to learn. I hadn't read a "how-to" book before I started writing, but I read a lot. It wasn't discerning reading, but it was reading. I had some good ideas about what works and what doesn't.

    Now that I have been actively trying to improve my writing for a while, I find that I am a more discerning reader. I am better able to pick up on the techniques and see the mechanics of things. I don't always read with that in mind, but it becomes hard not to notice how someone else writes.

    I'll keep reading, but I won't get any better as a writer unless I'm practicing what I learn.

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  17. I really love the balanced point of view in this post. Yes, reading can be a crucial part of the learning process, but it's not the only way. I particularly liked your reasoning behind intentional reading, and your point about out-dated writing techniques. Bottom line - there is so much for us to learn still, and so many ways to improve ourselves. And hopefully, this will remain a continuing process.

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  18. I do think reading is very important for writers. I can't imagine how one could write without also being a reader. I also think reading widely is key.

    Besides books I love to read magazines and newspapers, blogs and other online writings, even junk mail. Finding a greeting card with just the right words can be a pleasurably time-consuming experience! Many children's books are wonderful to read. I think it's important to read non-fiction as well as fiction.

    Building the skills to analyse what works and doesn't comes only with time(unless perhaps for students of literature), and sometimes reading analytically can take away the sheer pleasure of reading.

    But I'm sure you're right, Jody, in that reading is only one of the tools in our writing toolkits. The practice of writing itself must be the most crucial to achieving one's writing goals. Sadly, I'm someone who's too easily diverted by something to read that isn't what I'm writing at that time.

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  19. Reading is important, especially since most of us developed the love for reading first and the love for writing came after that. Reading definitely helps in developing styles and improving vocabularies, but I wouldn't say it is crucial for success. For example, I've never read anything form the fantasy genre at the time when I wrote my first fantasy story that ended up being published. I think that reading "great books" can sometimes even get on the way of our creativity, especially if we try to sound like our favorite author or use his techniques at any cost.

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  20. Brilliant post Jody! So many people always cite the literary greats. If we wrote like Hawthorne there wouldn't a snowball's chance in ... of getting through a crit partner let alone an agent. I can picture the first comment.. "You wrote an entire chapter without a single punctuation mark!"
    Writing is ever evolving and while we may cite current published pieces as good examples we should always keep in mind the 'new releases' on the shelves may have been written 2 or 3 years ago. It's not what the community is looking for or has evolved into presently.
    The greatest treasure-trove of writing I've found has actually been all of the writers and authors I've befriended through social media. It doesn't get any more current and there's a new topic ever single day.

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  21. I think you can learn and grow in your writing if you continue to read all types of books. We must have a lifestyle of learning and that certainly comes through reading. I am blessed to co author my book with my identical twin sister and we have always LOVED to read, but it is not the only way to grow your writing.

    Roslyn
    http://doubleportioninspiration.blogspot.com/

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  22. For me, reading can inspire me. If I don't read fiction for a while I find my mind switching off or at least it becoms harder to connect to the part of my brain where my thoughts become something more. I'm beginning to realise though, that books can be significant, whether they're "good" or not. Taking the time to read, not just to enjoy the story, but to look at how the story has been put together (the order of action, for example) can be interesting. Whether that helps to become a better writer or not, I'm yet to see. But I'd sure like to give it a try.

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  23. After doing a creative writing degree I find that I cannot read a fiction book now without seeing the framework to some extent. In fact, in some ways, it spoiled the total enjoyment of getting lost in a good book. I generally try to ignore the learning until I get to the end of a book and then I reflect on how the writer put the book together. I also think you can learn a lot (as in what not to do) from reading a bad book!!

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  24. Writer Pat J, I'm the same way. Now that I've grown in my writing skills, I have a hard time turning off my internal editor as I read. It's very hard not to ready analytically! There are times when I wish I wasn't so much of a "student." :-) And I agree with your comment about learning a lot from poorly written books too!

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  25. Thank you for the shout out! :) Your comment reminds me of a great line I just read in One Day this weekend: "...she was discovering once again that reading and writing were not the same - you couldn't just soak it up then squeeze it out again."

    In a way, I should thank the author of that horrific MS, because that was one of the events that motivated me to finally start working on my own novel. I thought to myself, "I don't know what I'm afraid of, because I know I can at least write something better than this!"

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  26. Hi Julie! Thanks for providing that bit of inspiration! :-) I thought it was very interesting AND true! I'm reading a book to my kids right now written by a high school literature teacher (very small press publisher), and the writing is very difficult to wade through.

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  27. You have a fabulous blog! I want to award you the Creative Blog Award for all the hard work you do!

    BTW, I am your newest follower.
    I invite you to follow me as we have a lot in common.

    My blog specialize in helping writers get published by learning from agents, editors and authors who I interview.
    Tomorrow, I am having a literary agent on my blog as a special guest. She has some great tips for authors.

    Take care and have a nice day :-)
    Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.
    ~Deirdra

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  28. Thank you for your kind words and the award, Deirdra! Appreciate it! And thanks for signing up to follow me too!

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  29. if it doesn't come bursting out of you
    in spite of everything,
    don't do it.
    unless it comes unasked out of your
    heart and your mind and your mouth
    and your gut,
    don't do it.
    if you have to sit for hours
    staring at your computer screen
    or hunched over your
    typewriter
    searching for words,
    don't do it.
    if you're doing it for money or
    fame,
    don't do it.
    if you're doing it because you want
    women in your bed,
    don't do it.
    if you have to sit there and
    rewrite it again and again,
    don't do it.
    if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
    don't do it.
    if you're trying to write like somebody
    else,
    forget about it.
    if you have to wait for it to roar out of
    you,
    then wait patiently.
    if it never does roar out of you,
    do something else.

    if you first have to read it to your wife
    or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
    or your parents or to anybody at all,
    you're not ready.

    don't be like so many writers,
    don't be like so many thousands of
    people who call themselves writers,
    don't be dull and boring and
    pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
    love.
    the libraries of the world have
    yawned themselves to
    sleep
    over your kind.
    don't add to that.
    don't do it.
    unless it comes out of
    your soul like a rocket,
    unless being still would
    drive you to madness or
    suicide or murder,
    don't do it.
    unless the sun inside you is
    burning your gut,
    don't do it.

    when it is truly time,
    and if you have been chosen,
    it will do it by
    itself and it will keep on doing it
    until you die or it dies in you.

    there is no other way.

    and there never was.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the beautiful comment! :-)

      Delete
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