Mistake No. 25: Not reading

If one more new writer tells me he has twenty hours a week to spare to write but “I don’t have the time to read!” I may ask to be shut away somewhere dark for a bit to wail until rescued. Any naughty middle-aged ladies out there want to stroke me, pick me up – and then drop me in a bin?

You’re reading this right now, so I suspect you don’t need to be reminded, but you really must read. Reading broadens your mind, feeds your intellect, stimulates your creativity. It makes you more interesting – as a person, as a writer. It’s soothing and satisfying. It fills you with questions and wonder and ideas and inspiration – lifeblood to a writer. Obviously, it boosts vocabulary and teaches you grammar and punctuation, but also it introduces you to clever sentence constructions and journalistic tricks and literary gymnastics you may not previously have conceived of. It shows you how it’s all done.

The excuses:

1/ I don’t have the time
But you do to write? If you have twenty hours to write you can give half of them over to reading. Only two hours to write? One hour writing and one hour reading. Yeah, I do mean it. (At least when you’re starting out.) So does Stephen King: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

2/ There’s nothing I like to read
I’m firmly of the belief that if you hold the view that there’s nothing out there you like to read, then it’s because you haven’t found it and not because it doesn’t exist. Spend more time in the newsagent, the library, the bookshop, even on the internet. What do you want to write about? In what do you wish to specialise? You have to read about subjects which interest you, to inform yourself and keep updated. You must interest yourself in stuff. If you can’t or won’t, then you’re in so much trouble I’m not sure anyone can help you.

3/ I want to write, not read
But reading is a part of writing; they complement one another. We learn this at school.

Look: you have to read what you’ve written, right? Well, reading and appraising the work of others will help you cast a wiser critical eye over your own output – essential in developing as a writer. A writer not wanting to read is like a chef not wanting to eat out, or a musician avoiding gigs, or a footballer turning his nose up at the match. Dare I say it’s a bit arrogant, too? What makes you so special that you only want to write and expect to be read and yet not read the work of others?

4/ It’ll ruin my style! I want to retain my own voice!
You know, the more I think of the issue of a writer’s ‘style’ the less I think it matters. Here, the usual concern is that reading other writers and thereby exposing oneself to their styles may dilute one’s own literary signature or compromise its destined development.

First, it’s rare to have a style distinctive enough to make you recognisable in print. I’m not saying that you’re not one of those individuals or that you lack the talent to nurture such an original voice, just that it’s not important to get published or make a living. There is no shame in reading like the next perfectly competent but otherwise unremarkable writer. None at all. I’m sure I sound like dozens of other health hacks out there. I’m fine with that; I make a living. Being able to adapt your writing and willing to work according to your client’s needs are more important skills to develop. Far more important.

Second: what is style anyway? What is this voice you’re so keen to protect? Surely it’s merely an assembly of elements you’ve been picking up from others since childhood? The words you learned from parents, teachers and peers, the phrases and turns of expression you’ve absorbed from the telly and your friends and work colleagues and – yes – the books and journals you’ve read? All exposures to words and their arrangements throughout life have the potential to leave their subtle marks on your writing. It’s unavoidable and inevitable. Each is filtered uniquely and mostly subconsciously by you: some is discarded, some taken on board, perhaps slightly tweaked. Nobody writes precisely like you, and nobody ever will – not even you in a few years’ time, because this organic process progresses daily, for life. Your style, then, has developed from a unique mix of the styles and voices of thousands of others – among them writers. Why be alarmed of them now?

In many ways, all this is by the by. The key is this: your style is unlikely to be what anyone is looking at or for when they read you. They will be looking for facts, information and entertainment. That’s it in a nutshell.

So: make time for reading. Read everything, not only the obvious stuff like locals and nationals, glossies and niche magazines, and books. Read the backs of boxes of cereal, read road signs, read ‘lost dog’ notices sticky-taped to lampposts. Read the classifieds, and the notices in newsagent windows. Read the terms and conditions and read all the rest of the smallprint. Read recipes and read lists of ingredients. Read catalogues and phone directories and dictionaries. Read quirky chat forums. Read subtitles and Ceefax. Read the junk mail. Read Twitter streams.

There are ideas lurking there, in each of these, just waiting to be discovered, teased out and developed.

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