If You Want To Be A Great Writer, Keep Reading
Reading leads to better writing
The other day I came across an article which piqued my interest. It was about how reading less can make you a better writer.
The article was by one of my favourite writers on Medium, Tom Kuegler. I was a little surprised to see he had written an article such as this and I soon found myself devouring the post.
I’m a big fan of Tom’s work. He is one of the few writers whose work I look out for on Medium. I love his positivity, writing style and general take on life, but on this topic, I don’t agree with him.
I have a huge passion for reading. Ever since I can remember, I loved reading. It is this passion for reading that led me on to writing. I had dabbled with it from time to time in the past, but since I developed a firm reading habit a few years ago, I have been writing ever since.
For me, reading and writing are inextricably linked. I can’t have one without the other. Reading books on topics I’m passionate about is not just fun, it provides me with numerous ideas for articles.
Without my reading habit, I’m not sure I would be as prolific at writing as I am today.
To be fair to Tom, he does acknowledge that you shouldn’t stop reading altogether, that is an extreme view to take. I do believe that you should be writing slightly more than you read. You need to strike a balance between the two that works best for you.
Whatever you do don’t stop reading. It provides you with new viewpoints, a variety of writing styles and inspiration. Here are a few reasons why reading will make you a better writer.
You will gain inspiration from unlikely sources
Tom uses a quote from Kanye to set the tone for his article. One where Kanye declares his superpower as “…his ability to not be influenced.”
This is a noble sentiment, but Kanye is being loose with the truth here. Before recording his third album, Graduation, Kanye had been touring with U2 on their Vertigo Tour.
He was mesmerised watching Bono open the shows at packed out stadiums to cheers and standing ovations. In the wake of this, Kanye decided to compose anthemic rap songs that could operate better in a stadium environment than his current work.
Kanye is a great artist and his work is groundbreaking and unique, but for him to say he is not influenced is disingenuous. Every artist whether they realise it or not is influenced by someone.
The influence might be tacit, or it might be explicit, but there is always an influence.
In July, I read A Clockwork Orange for the first time. It was an eye-opening and fascinating book. I enjoyed it so much, it inspired me to write a post on the core theme of the book, whether it’s better to be morally depraved or coerced into being moral.
The influences of the book are clear in my article, but I have added my interpretation of the argument in there as well. I have expanded on the ideas presented in the book.
You’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here. Reading exposes you to new ideas and you then have the choice to run with those ideas as you wish.
Reading exposes you to different writing styles
One of the best things about reading is that there are so many different styles of books to read. Several of my favourite novels are written in the first person.
The Great Gatsby, Norwegian Wood and The Beach are examples of brilliant first-person novels. Seeing the story from the main character’s perspective and watching it develop as the novel progresses is a thrill.
As someone with aspirations to write a novel in the first person, this is a fantastic way of seeing how various writers weave their plot together through the eyes of a single person narrative.
One of my favourite writers is Michael Crichton. I’ve read several of his books such as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain. Crichton writes in a very different style, but one that is still effective at grabbing my attention.
His novels are mostly thrillers with a scientific edge. Jurassic Park focuses on chaos theory and how it plays out with dinosaurs in a theme park, while The Andromeda Strain looks at the potential impact of a spaceborne virus landing on Earth.
Crichton’s novels are slow burners. He begins at walking pace, setting the scene before they slowly burst into life and the plot culminates in a grand finale. They are entertaining reads, but they are also educational too.
The novels he wrote focused on cutting edge science, such as nanotechnology, chaos theory and time travel. Not only are you reading a riveting story, but you’re also learning too.
I agree with Tom when he says you should be careful not to spit back the lessons and styles you’ve digested, but they should serve as inspiration for your work.
Take pieces from each of your favourite authors. See what works for them and if you can use it in your work. Experimentation is the name of the game. Soon enough you will find your writing voice.
You’ll learn new ideas
As well as reading novels, I love to read personal development, science and any other books that take my fancy.
Just this year, I’ve read Sapiens, a book about the history of humanity up until now, Adults In The Room, a book about the ex Greek Finance Minister’s dealings with the European Union and Brief Answers To The Big Questions, Stephen Hawking’s last book that looks at the biggest issues facing humanity today.
This is a diverse set of books. The topics range from history, finance and science. Each one has taught me a lot. Reading, for me, is a way of exposing myself to new ideas.
They are only just beginning. The formal education system is one small part of the learning process. Experience is a huge part of this too. I learnt a lot more travelling than I did at university, but it’s only one aspect.
Experiences are a good source of inspiration for writing. A lot of my articles deal with my own experiences in life, but not every experience can be turned into an article.
Reading is a way of learning about new ideas and concepts. They may expand on what you already know or they open your eyes to something you have never discovered before.
Either way, reading new and varied books on a range of topics will keep you inspired to write and help you make sense of your ideas.
Original ideas are rare
One part of Tom’s article that interested me was his section about original ideas. It was an intriguing section and one I found myself re-reading.
No one wants to copy another’s work, I understand that. We all want to get our point across from our unique perspective. In this case, Tom is right. All of us can write from a unique point of view that no one else possesses.
However, when it comes to “original ideas”, it’s hard to say what is original and what isn’t original. I don’t want to echo the famous 1989 essay The End of History and declare there are no more original ideas because there almost certainly is.
But they are rare.
Humanity has been writing for thousands of years. You can read books from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus that deal with many of the same topics we agonise over today.
Anxiety, fears of mortality and wondering how to be a better person. These are all topics that writers of the past covered. They had similar thoughts, similar feeling and similar worries. We may think our modern age presents new problems, but read these books and you’ll realise humans have had these problems for thousands of years.
Tom might be right when he says you should detox yourself from social media, books and articles to find those rare original ideas, but is it worth it?
You shouldn’t chase an original idea just for the sake of it. Almost nothing is original. Everything has been influenced by something or someone else one way or another.
By all means, take a step back now and again, reduce the amount you read. But, realise that finding an original idea is rare. It’s likely been covered before, but that doesn’t mean you should cover it anyway.
You should focus on providing your unique perspective. Only you see things the way you do.
Even if the topic has been covered before, it may not have been covered in the way you want to cover it.