For one of my classes in college, our required reading included Stephen King’s part-memoir-part-writing-advice-guide book, On Writing. Towards the end, King lists off some tips to help you become a better writer. One of the tips made everyone in the class groan in a chorus of “ooooh” because of how obvious it was.
The tip? Read a lot.
Those words felt like a slap in the face with a wet fish. At times it feels like we focus so much on the writing part, we completely forget about the reading. But the two go hand in hand: it’s hard to write well without reading well.
All the best writers take in a plethora of books and reading material. In an episode of the podcast Talking Volumes, children’s author Kate DiCamillo admits that she includes time to read in her everyday schedule, viewing it as a part of her job. She’ll wake up, write a little bit, make some coffee, then start reading in the afternoon.
In fact, if you listen to various authors in interviews, they’ll off-handedly reference or recommend a book or two or five. I’m enrolled in an online masterclass with comic writer Scott Snyder, and in each class he references at least three other comics besides his own and discusses the use of technique that makes each comic unique and effective.
So then the question becomes, “what do I read?”, and I suppose the appropriate answer is, “everything”. Let’s start with the classics. They’re classics for a reason, and helped lay the foundation for the modern literary landscape. From Frankenstein and Dracula to the Iliad and Gilgamesh, there’s no end to what might inspire your own work. These classic stories survive because of their epic characters, exquisite language, and more.
Of course, read modern literature as well to stay up-to-date on what’s relative in the writing world today. The style of this era tends to be postmodern, often blending genres. Writers continue to churn out captivating plots and engaging characters. What’s more, there’s an increased focus on diversity and highlighting the voices of people of color, which the classics aren’t always good at doing.
Try not to limit yourself to one genre. Take in science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, slice of life, young adult, etc. Branch out from books and search out some poetry, short stories, comics, and graphic novels. Each genre and medium will show you something you might not have considered, and cultivate new ideas.
You might even want to try reading things that aren’t good. Reading a good book can show you what can go right, but reading a bad book will teach you what not to do. If the characters are unbearable and the plot makes no sense, you can shut the book and dissect the words until you discover the reason why — and then avoid those same mistakes in your own work.
One final reason to do more reading: it’ll serve as a nice break from writing and help prevent writer’s block. If you focus too much on churning out pages, you might burn yourself out. Taking the time to relax and read resets your brain, keeping you fresh for your return to the keyboard. So dust off that library card, crack the spine on a new hardcover, and start from the beginning. It’s half of the equation to becoming a good writer.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.