If you want to be a writer, you hear it all the time.
“Write every day” is the standard advice. Everyone talks about how you need a daily habit to establish yourself as a professional. Writing every day improves your skill. Creates a routine. Teaches you discipline.
Thousands of articles and blog posts urge creatives to write, stating that the physical act of writing helps you clear your head and organize your thoughts while physically training your body to produce output. You have to put your butt in a chair and work, not just once in a while, but daily. Habitually. Consistently. Writing every day is like going to the gym — only you’re developing mental muscle and verbal strength instead of building physical bulk. Brain-building instead of bodybuilding. George Singleton, a Southern author and teacher of writing, author of two novels, eight short story collections, and one book about how to write fiction, believes so much that daily writing is important that he gives this advice: “Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk — away from any open flames — to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.”
Something to Write About
Yes. It’s absolutely true that you have to write daily to improve. If you aren’t writing, you can’t be producing work. You have to have written work, samples, and content to convince people that you’re worth hiring. Without writing, you have nothing. But there’s an underlying fiction in the idea that only have to write daily to be successful. The truth of the matter is that you have to have something to write about.
You have to have a continual flow of ideas. Without the input of ideas from outside sources to fuel your creative fire, you’ll be like Shakespeare’s mad Ophelia banging around in her empty brain, nonsense bubbling from her lips. You have to read to write.
The Second Half of the “Writing-Every-Day” Formula: Reading
Successful writers know that there’s more to success than just writing every day. They have proven the second half of the “Writing-Every-Day” formula, time and time again.
You have to READ daily in order to write daily.
Writing and reading are a tandem process, and great writers are always great readers.
Take advice from Stephen King, the bestselling author of Carrie and dozens of horror novels. (Please note that he is not just a “bestselling” writer. His novels have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide, have been translated into more than 50 languages, and have been adapted for dozens of films.)
But if you only know Stephen King for his scary stories, you’re missing out on some excellent writing advice from a guy who has been recognized as a master of his craft since his novel Carrie was first published in 1973.
If you want to write, you will want to read King’s book: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. (Did you notice the connection? If you want to write, you’ll want to read…)
Stephen King writes about the intertwined activities in his memoir, stressing that the two activities are inextricably linked.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Stephen King and Others…
Stephen King is not alone in his admonition that writers must read.
Throughout time, writers from every time period and every part of the world have stressed the connection between bringing in information and putting out information.
Take, for example, the Englishman, Dr. Samuel Johnson, the man known to be the greatest force of literature and writing during the 1700s. He created one of the first dictionaries, spending nine years of his life in near poverty to compile the definitions of 42,000 words. He knew that reading had to come before writing:
The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”
Then there’s Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish author of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped. A century after Dr. Samuel Johnson noted that one activity doesn’t exist without the other. He wrote,
“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.”
The List Goes On…
One hundred years after Stevenson was talking about the duality of reading and writing, Ray Bradbury repeated the advice, suggesting that doing both is the key to finding success.
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”
(Just for the record, Bradbury is the author of the classic Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and The Illustrated Man. He is also the guy who wrote one of the writing quotes I most identify with: “I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.” )
William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-Winner for Literature in 1949, emphasized that not only do writers get ideas but that they also learn the best techniques of writing and style by reading:
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
Is There Such a Thing as an Author Who Doesn’t Read?
This is a true story. I once went to a session at a local coffeehouse featuring area writers who had published books. As soon as I walked in and the writer presenting said, “Well, I’ve never been a reader. I really don’t like books,” (no kidding,) I knew I was in trouble.
I bought his self-published book out of curiosity, a test to see if anyone who didn’t read could actually write.
You know the answer.
His book was HORRIBLE, pathetic in its attempt to deliver an idea. All his sentences started with the same words, usually “I.” Comma splices, misspellings, rambling paragraphs, overuse of adverbs, every writing error you could make was there, making it almost unreadable.
I now use my twelve-dollar book purchased from this self-published man only to create black-out poetry.
Reading Kickstarts Your Creativity
Research has shown that reading enhances creativity, something every writer needs.
It’s been proven that students who spend more time reading, score higher on creativity tests. The same was true for students who spend more time writing than others.
A different study suggested that the people with higher reading comprehension and awareness of the sounds of words also scored higher on “creativity and insight tasks.”
Reading deeply, the kind of reading you do when you immerse yourself in a novel, leads to increased focus. That increased focus encourages creativity. (This kind of deep reading a book is unlike the rapid-fire, jumping from place to place on a webpage that we so often do.)
The Unbreakable Partnership
All those people who say that you must have a daily writing habit to succeed are right. But they’re wrong if they aren’t also saying you need a daily reading habit.
You can’t do one without the other.
It’s your daily reading ritual that gives you ideas, throwing fuel into your creative furnace. It’s reading that teaches you — without you even knowing it — the fine points of grammar, strategies of story-telling, rules of dialogue, dialect, and description. It’s reading that cultivates your critical thinking ability.
It’s reading that makes you more creative. As Annie Proulx says,
“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”