Do You Have This Important Tool In Your Writer's Toolkit?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I'm currently between manuscripts. I finished editing a book in June, turned it in to my publisher, and now am busily researching my next book.

The research stage is always a bit of a break for me. I don't have the daily pressure to write a certain number of words. And I don't need the intense focus required during editing. Even though I try to accomplish several hours of research per day, my daily goals are less intense.

During the research lull between books, I usually attempt to make a dent in my to-be-read pile. While I've always considered reading one of life's greatest pleasures, I've also come to realize that as a fiction writer, reading is a necessity in becoming a better writer.

The more a writer reads, the more familiar they become with story-telling. In fact, if you grew up like I did, with a book permanently attached to your hand, then writing fiction is probably somewhat intuitive. You already have a good foundation for what comprises a well-told story, even if you can't quite put those techniques into fiction-writing lingo.

Even so, I recommend that all writers, no matter how much fiction they've read, STILL take the time to familiarize themselves with the craft of writing fiction. Even if we think we know how to write, we'll only give ourselves even more of an advantage by familiarizing ourselves with story structure, plotting techniques, character building, etc. I find that I pick up new tips every time I read a fiction craft book.

In the busyness of life and writing, however, I'm becoming more convinced that writers NEED to make the time to read fiction, particularly within their genre. But I've benefitted in reading way outside my normal comfort zone as well.

Maybe we won't be able to read every day or even every week. Maybe you'll read in spurts like I do. Whatever the case, we can't let guilt inhibit us from pursuing a passion for reading—guilt from the constant pressure to be doing something "useful" when we're not writing, like being on social media building a web presence and marketing our books.

Reading is part of the toolkit in becoming a better writer—particularly when it's coupled with intentional evaluation. 

Nowadays, I have very little choice but to evaluate the books I read. My internal editor never (or at least very rarely) hibernates. So I'm always critiquing the books I read, whether I want to or not. I've been known to take notes and even get out a highlighter and mark up my novels.

When I read something I like, I ask myself these questions:

• What made that particular scene resonate with me?

• Did the plot grip me? And if so, what techniques did the author use to keep my attention?

• Did I like the characters? And if so, what about the characters made me empathize with them?

When I read something that falls flat, I ask myself some of these kinds of questions:

• Why didn't the scene draw me in right away?

• If the plot plods along, why? What's slowing it down?

• If I don't fall in love with the characters, what's keeping me from liking them?

Recently, I was traveling home from a family wedding, and during the long van ride I was reading a book by an author I normally love. But for some reason, her latest book had failed to keep my attention. I started going through the above questions, and I came to the conclusion that the plot was plodding because the story lacked a threat (or antagonist) to the characters. And I hadn't fallen in love with the characters because they were mostly consumed with their own desires.

All that to say, while I was reading, I was "working." I was growing in my writing skill. I was consciously looking at techniques I could use in my stories as well as issues I could avoid.

Not only does reading help us grow in skill, but it also helps us be more market-savvy. My editor said this in a blog post last week: In finding the “original” for your story, your greatest weapon is going to be your reading. You need to know what’s out there, what’s already been done. You need to read fiction.

So writers, next time you feel guilty for reading (or your spouse asks you why you just bought another book!), remember you're working. Because for a writer, reading should always be part of the job.

How much do you read? Do you ever feel guilty for reading, like you should be doing something more productive?


  1. The only time I feel anything close to "guilt" is when other mothers look at me and say "How do you have the time to read". Or "I can't remember the last time I read an entire book." I begin to wonder how it is I have the time to do that when they don't. Same as the fact that I watch TV with the hubby in the evening.

    Yeah, I need to be better about writing, but these days my prime writing time is in the morning before anyone's up (4:30 - 5:45 usually). But I wonder what's wrong with me as a parent that I have this time to do stuff and other parents can't even read a book or watch TV.

    1. Hi Tory,

      I've heard that from other moms too! I also often have other moms ask me "How do you have time to write? I would never have time to do what you do."

      The thing is, we can always make time for the things that are important to us. Aside from that, I've learned over the years to take advantage of my time, to make the most of every minute!

      So I would say, there's absolutely nothing wrong with you! If we're too busy to do the things we love, then we're too busy. Simple as that!

  2. JODY!
    Sweet Lord, why is it that almost every post you write resonnates with me? And I'm not even a published writer. Here's what I totally agree with: 'The more a writer reads, the more familiar they become with story-telling. In fact, if you grew up like I did, with a book permanently attached to your hand, then writing fiction is probably somewhat intuitive. You already have a good foundation for what comprises a well-told story, even if you can't quite put those techniques into fiction-writing lingo.'

    '...evaluate the books I read' I do that, but I take a look at the writing style, particularly.

    AND yes, my TBR pile is overflowing.

    You're doing a GREAT Jody!! Keep it up. Whoo-hoo!

    1. Hi Ganise!

      I'm so glad that my posts resonate. That's so cool! If we're avid readers, then we usually have a bit of an advantage when we actually put pen to paper, especially if we have already taken the time to understand what works and what doesn't.

      Thanks for all your encouragement! :-)

  3. Of course I've felt guilty for reading.. I'm a mom! Guilt is part of my makeup. ;-)

    I've read countless books on craft and have spent my fair share of time reading blog posts about writing, but far and away, the most influential inspiration for me has always been reading fiction. Somehow reading novels triggers my creativity in ways that craft books rarely do. Fiction is the reigning cure for writer's block in my little writing world.

    1. Really, really great point, Barb. Reading always helps foster ideas for me. Of course we're not copying anyone else. But the plot mechanics, twists, etc. often act as a catalyst for our own creativity. So read on, guilt and all! :-)

  4. Jody, you are so right! I hear it, read, read...and it's true. Now that I've learned what to do and NOT do, I find myself automatically reading a book differently.

    I was always an avid reader anyway, so continuing to read isn't a stretch, but now my experiences are with a more critical eye.

  5. My internal editor is pretty much switched to "ON" these days, but it doesn't mitigate my joy in reading. How lucky we are to love this extension of our work.

  6. I couldn't agree more, Jody. Readers make better writers. Period. It affords us a solid grasp of what's already out there, how the authors are saying it, and provides insights that we didn't have before. All of those things enrich our writing - regardless of what you write.

  7. Great post, Jody, as always. I do not read nearly a much as I should, which in turn makes me feel really guilty. I guess I should definitely work on that.

  8. I LOVE reading, especially now that I'm writing novels. I love to see what's out there and check out new authors. My TBR pile is overflowing right now, and I have a feeling it will always stay that way. I've had a lot less time to read lately, and I'd like to change that. I definitely recognize the importance of reading, both to keep up with what's going on in your genre and to improve your own writing.

  9. I don't read as much as I would like to -- there always seems to be a manuscript waiting to be plotted, or written, or edited.
    But I know, know, know I need to read more.
    I've even been told to take colored markers and highlight different things in a novel -- things I like, the spiritual thread, what works, that sort of thing ...
    All in good time.
    When is that, by the way?

    1. Beth, I can relate. I've found that the busier I get as an author, the easiest thing to let slide is my reading. There is ALWAYS something to be done. Our to-do lists never end, do they? So we can't wait until everything is crossed off to take the time to read--at least that's what I'm finding! I have to give myself permission to read, even when other demands crowd in.

  10. I've been trying to get through a book every week. I do feel like that, when I'm reading, I'm working. My TBR pile is huge, too. Sometimes it's hard to decide what to read next. Great post!

  11. My mother has no interest in fiction, so I always felt guilty, growing up, for having a book attached to my hand. Now, I'm constantly justifying my reading to my husband even though it isn't necessary. I'm blessed that he's completely on board with my reading and writing!

  12. I read TOO much if anything. Tearing myself away to get on with the day is my biggest issue. I also review, a discipline that makes me put into words what I did or didn't like about the book and is tremendously helpful for my development as a writer. I've heard that traditional publishers don't always like an author reviewing online, though, but as a self-pubber I don't have that problem. I'm addicted to Goodreads, and while my physical TBR pile has swelled to ridiculous size, my virtual TBR list has escaped the bounds of reality at nearly 800 books.

  13. So true! Classics have been my reads of choice for many years, but once I got into writing fiction for the Christian market, I realized I had to start reading Christian fiction! There's certainly a benefit to reading how authors write in your genre. Unfortunately, writing books that read like classics isn't a great tactic nowadays! I'll still keep reading them, however. Grin.

  14. I do feel guilty for reading when I could/should be doing something else, whether it's household chores or writing. But, I have to remind myself: self, if you want to be a better writer, you have to read. So, my to-read stack is currently 6 deep on my desk, and I have 1 waiting for me at the library, and who knows how many on my Kindle.

    Great post. I actually wrote about reading yesterday on my blog, so it must be a popular topic this week. :D

  15. Yes, I completely agree! During my first year of grad school I didn't read a single novel, and my creativity totally dried up. Reading has always been one of my great joys, and I love that it is both a form of relaxation and learning.

    One thing that I have started doing is listening to audiobooks more often. I've noticed that listening to someone read a book helps me to gain a greater appreciation of dialogue and description. There is such an art to stringing words together, and sometimes I have to pause and rewind to listen to certain passages again to really think about why it struck a chord in me.

  16. I've upped the amount I read. I made a goal at the beginning of the year to read a book a week. (Which is a lot for me :)) I'm on track to do that, but i include all the MS I critique for people because, lets face it, that counts too! :)

  17. I've been trying to consciously carve out time to read a book a week lately and keep a book review journal to help me as I go. It's really helped improve my writing, I think, and I plan to continue to do so for a long time to come.

  18. Great post, Jody.

    I made a decision to not feel guilty that I'm not the perfect housekeeper or gardener. (Let's not talk about some of the weeds that look like small trees in my yard, okay?) Writing is my priority now when I'm not working the day job. If my eyes allow it, I'm at the computer writing or revising. I started reading more historical fiction recently after I took 2000 words of a story to my critique group and their main concern was my use of language that sounded too modern. Now I'm scouring Amazon and other sites looking for books written for the same time period to get a feel for how other authors present their stories. It's absolutely critical that we're familiar with what is being written in our genre!

  19. I always have a book going, sometimes two - one upstairs book and one downstairs book. I can't imagine not being in the midst of a book. And I notice I pay much more attention now to how authors start their story, introduce the characters, and keep my attention. Reading is essential.

  20. What a great post - I'll link to this from my own blog. I enjoyed that and think my readers will also.

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