The Link between Reading and Writing

Before we write, we read.

We learn as children, preferably as very young children. As soon as we can read, a whole world opens up which would be denied us if we could not interpret those squiggles on the page. Full of insatiable curiousity, we devour picture books, then more solid affairs with no delightful drawings to  lead us. Soon, the words are sufficient. They build their own pictures inside our heads as our imaginations grasp what the stories are about. We are hooked.

If we are born writers, the next step is one of desire, of compulsion. How can we produce those pictures? How can we hook others to bite into our words, to hear our voices and to see the  fantasies rolling out across our minds?

Our first attempts at writing may seem shallow, both to us and to our readers, but we have to write these. We have to learn the craft. And in learning, there is more reading to be done. ‘How-to’ books, literary books, genre fiction of all kinds. Good books. And very, very, bad books. All teach us something. And that something may end up in the next draft of our current tome.

There are writers who profess not to read. I have met one. She likes one particular genre but doesn’t read it. She thinks that to read books from the genre she writes will confuse her and may cause her to include things from those stories in her own. She says she fears a kind of accidental plagiarism.

I cannot pretend that I understand this. As someone who will read the label on a sauce bottle if it sits in front of me, I read anything and everything. Like writing, it isn’t a choice, it’s a compulsion. Stick the written word anywhere close to me and I’ll read it. I think most people are drawn to words. Children learn dreadful spelling from clever(?) advertising. Posters abound. Even at the side of the road, there are signs telling us all about some bazaar, or garden show, trying to distract us from the job in hand. I think these really are stupidly distracting and I make a conscious effort not to look, to concentrate on the road.

But not reading anything? If you write, how is that possible? How do you stay up to date with your genre if you don’t read it? How do you learn to make your writing better if you choose not to listen to some of the tons of authorial wisdom out there?

Sometimes, writing is tough, really tough. I’m not big on writer’s block. I’m lucky enough not to have suffered much from it. If anything I have more of a problem with the bad back/neck/wrists that ensue from sitting too long and typing too much. But if you are a bit blocked, escaping into a far away world is a release from the worry of it. Picking up your favourite (or new and as yet undiscovered) How-to may be the perfect way to find a new route back into your novel.



What could be more wonderful than reading for pleasure, for the sheer delight of telepathy, one mind showing another the inner workings of their story? It was Stephen King who first suggested to me that writing was telepathy, in his wonderful almost-memoir On Writing. I love the analogy and have quoted it many times since. But there are other ways to read, especially if we expect to learn something along the way: with highlighters and bright sticky labels to hand.

Take a look at  How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler revised with Charles van Doren

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”

If you own a Kindle, ‘marking’ a reference book is easy now, no pen or sticky tabs or highlighter required. I pay that respect of annotation with many of my ‘real’ books, but they are the special ones. The ones from which I’m learning my craft. I would no more dream of marking one of my beautiful reading books than of daubing paint on the Mona Lisa. And marking a library book I consider to be the ultimate sin against reading. Grr! Don’t understand people who do that. Or who turn down corners…. or leave books flat instead of using a bookmark….. But that’s another subject.


I suspect that the lady of my acquaintance who professes not to read is in the minority among writers. Or she tells enormous porkies and I cannot for the life of me see why she would. But I could be wrong on either count.

So, what about you? Are you an avid reader? And how do you read a reference book that you own? Carefully, marking each paragraph of interest? Do tell.

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27 responses to “The Link between Reading and Writing

  1. I love this! I too read cereal packets or posters in the doctor’s waiting room if nothing else is available. My biggest fear is running out of reading material on holiday. I instantly link up to all the libraries and bookshops in any area I happen to move to. I simply cannot understand people who say they are too influenced by others and therefore avoid reading – how wishy-washy must your style be to allow that to happen (even after editing)?

    • Thank you. Wishy washy or just lazy? No idea, but it makes no sense to me. And I never run out of reading matter even on holiday – especially now I have the Kindle. I make sure it’s loaded at all times. And I have loads of books and access to the library. wonderful.

  2. How funny, I was planning on writing a post about this very subject myself. When I first started writing – properly – I stopped reading. I have read for as long as I can remember. I have written stories for as long as I can remember. Books are one of the items I can not live without. Yet for some strange reason I thought reading other people’s work whilst writing was wrong. I have no idea why. I can understand the fear of being influenced too much by other’s, but some influence is not a bad thing. How often have you struggled to find the perfect word, only to read it an hour later somewhere else? How often have you been reading someone else’s story only to have an idea (completely unrelated) about your own? Reading keeps the inspirational juices flowing, and whilst there will always be footprints of the books we read in our work, if our writing voice is strong enough, it will only enhance rather than detract.

    • Yay! Of course reading enhances your writing. How else are we to learn, to expand our horizons, to realise what we could do with those tools of words?
      We have to keep reading. That’s not relaxation, that’s part of our equipment when we write. 😀

  3. Reading is the food of the imagination. I try to gorge myself everyday.

  4. I’ve always read and i’ve been writing for the majority of my life. I couldn’t imagine doing one without the other (although, like Kirsten, I read less when I write more). I have heard a few writers say they never read and even one who insisted they never had, stating they get all they need to know from Soap Operas… surprisingly their books weren’t as bad as you’d expect, so I don’t know what to believe on that one.

    • Hmm. Don’t read at all? Never have? How can they possibly write? don’t get it. Anyway, I would be demented if I couldn’t read at all. And yes, I read a bit less when I’m slogging out the writing, just because there is a limit on my time, but days begin and end with reading, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Like you, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read and I seem to have been writing for ever!

  5. I love reading but go through phases where I’ll read only non fiction, then I’ll switch back to fiction and so on and so forth. Last year I was into literature now I’m back reading non fiction again! LOL

    Reference books I tend to use pencil or sticky notes if I want to highlight information. Otherwise I just leave them and come back hoping I’ll recall where the info I wanted was!

    Someone writing who has never read seems incomprehensible to me but I guess there’s always the exceptions to the rule.

    • Yes, I agree with you about the phases. Though I usually have one work of fiction on the go, the bedtime reading: if I read something too serious it keeps me awake. But I switch around. Wouldn’t say I read much literary fiction, most of my reading falls into the category of stuff! Then there are the how-tos and the biographies.
      Can’t possibly just leave it to chance that I’ll remember where the info was in a book though. I just wouldn’t!

      • LOL, good to see you read a variety of stuff. I used to love reading biographies and memoirs but haven’t read any in the past few years. How-to books I’ll buy then be too lazy and undisciplined to use them! I get ambitious then can’t bring myself to follow through with the instructions.

        • I have definite phases with How to books. Sometimes use them and get on with them. Other times, I am such a pantser I just go with the flow. Come editing though, I lean on Self Editing for Fiction Writers which keeps me on the straight and narrow and doesn’t let me cut corners.
          Which I would because I hate editing.

  6. Pingback: Writing As a Dad | The Evolving Dad

    • Thank you for the reference back to my blog. Very kind. Great article BTW – always difficult to fit in writing around the world’s demands, especially with a little one. Keep at it. 🙂

  7. Reading. I can’t imagine not doing it.

  8. Pingback: Reading and Learning | patwoodblogging

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