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  • WritingBehindTheLines

How reading helps the writer

Updated: Feb 19, 2019

There are many writers who love, love, love to read. Perhaps it was even that love which inspired them to begin writing. There are a surprising number of writers who never read. Or, perhaps, in this age of digital devices, who read / skim / glance at hundreds of posts and texts and emails daily but who don't crack open a book and settle in to follow a storyline that can take hours or days to finish.

So why read? How does it help the writer?


Well, for me, there is the sheer pleasure of entering different worlds. This reason works equally well for reading a story as it does for following a friend taking a journey I will never take. Perhaps the book is set in Africa. Perhaps the hero is a murderer. Perhaps I have a friend on a trip to Iceland in mid-winter—or who is working with inner city kids. I get the vicarious experience, I get to live for a moment or a month through someone else's eyes.

For a writer, it is helpful to experience how someone else constructs and communicates their world. Do they use a particular set of writing strategies? Is the entire thing done as a photo essay? Either way, deconstructing a journey created by someone else can give you a raft of ideas for how to build your own world / create your own journey to share with others.


Reading tells you everything about how you might like to construct your own sentences. A good writer is a kind of spy when they read. Always observing the details. Separating the sentences and seeing how they accumulate to build a story.

Some writers, like Ernest Hemmingway, were renowned for their short pithy style:

"And another thing. Don’t ever kid yourself about loving some one. It is just that most people are not lucky enough ever to have it. You never had it before and now you have it."

--Ernest Hemmingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls

Other writers, are known for creating images with long sweeps of poetic description. Some are also poets, like Canadian author Michael Ondatjee, and it is clear to see this influence in the prose:

“The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names... Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape.”

--Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

It will quickly become clear whether a style works for your subject matter—or your temperament—and studying the masters can only improve your own efforts.


If, like me, you pick a genre and read dozens of books within that genre, exhausting the available supply at the library for, say, detective novels set in Los Angeles, or romances set during The Holidays—and I am guilty of plowing through around two dozen holiday romances every December—then you might want to consider "reading outside the lines."

What I mean by that, is to stretch yourself and pick another genre. Read the newspaper. Read non-fiction. Read a Victorian novel. Read letters and journals. The point is, that different writers use different strategies and "tricks" to achieve an effect or produce an emotion. Ironically, if you deconstruct how, for example, a letter writer uses the intimacy of the form to make an admission of something deeply embarrassing you could potentially use that in a fiction piece in service of a character. You get the idea.


Last thoughts on this: Pablo Picasso famously said about creativity that:

"Good artists copy, great artists steal."

My best guess as to what he intended by this statement is that great artists will take the inspiration they get from another artist as a starting point—and then transform it into something new. As soon as you integrate the idea into your own personal viewpoint, it will necessarily become original. No one else has had the same life as you, the same journey as you, or developed the same viewpoint. So feel free to be inspired by a master, just feed it through the lens of your own experience.

Now, go on out there, create your world and take us on a journey. I am ready to curl up with a warm cup of tea and a book. I hope it is yours.

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