Good Writing Requires Good Reading

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot since this year began. I agreed to moderate a panel at the Tucson Festival of Books in March, which required me to read books by each of the panelists. Soon after that was the voting deadline for SFWA’s Nebula Award and I wanted to read as many of the nominated works as possible before I cast my ballot. This was a great exercise because it introduced me to quite a few good books. The ones below are a sample of those I read for the Festival of Books panel.

The stack there is nothing compared to my Kindle, which feels like it should be bulging at the seams from all the great books I added to it. This has proven to be a great time to do some extra reading, because I’ve been working on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel. It might seem counter-intuitive to be busy reading when I’m also busy writing, but in my mind, the two activities go hand in hand and one is actually essential for the other.

I’m not the only one who says this. In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests that anyone serious about writing should have a book along so they can read in any spare time available. I was in the audience at a writers event in Tucson some years ago when Ray Bradbury suggested that someone serious about being a writer should read one poem, one essay, and one short story every single day.

It might seem like it’s tempting to steal ideas from writers when you do so much reading. I’ll be a little provocative and suggest that’s exactly the point of reading so much. Okay, yeah, lifting whole passages from another book into yours is plagiarism. Don’t do that! That said, when you’re writing, you might have difficulty finding just the right way to describe a series of events, knowing how much detail to include, or making a character feel really alive. By reading others, you can see how other writers have solved those problems which might suggest solutions to you.

The converse of this is also true. By reading a lot, you see pitfalls other writers have stumbled into and paths you don’t want to go down. In fact, while reading the Nebula-nominated books and stories, I become aware that even the best authors write passages that don’t work for me. It allows me to see that the piece might work in spite of a slight stumble. Sometimes when I think about something that looks like a stumble, I realize “fixing” a minor problem might result in either clunky prose, or might cause the writer to tell an entirely different story than the one they set out to tell. It also reminds me that I don’t have to be a perfectionist. Imperfect books are sold and even get nominated for awards all the time!

At this point, it might be tempting to invoke Sturgeon’s Law, which usually claims “90% of everything is crud.” Often a stronger word than “crud” is used, but that was Ted Sturgeon’s original word and I’ll stick with it. It’s become fashionable in fandom to bandy this “law” about and cynically state that this applies to any set of books or movies you might want to name. Now, I’m here to say that of all my reading in the last three months, hardly any of it was crud. Most was quite good. Some wasn’t quite as much to my taste as others. Some of the stories and books worked better for me than others, but I saw value in all of it.

In fact, it’s important to realize that “Sturgeon’s Law” was not meant to be invoked about absolutely anything. Originally, Theodore Sturgeon referred to it as “Sturgeon’s Revelation” and it was an argument against people using the worst examples of science fiction film and literature to demonstrate the worthlessness of the genre. His point was you can find bad examples from any art form or genre and use that as an excuse to vilify it.

Sturgeon’s Revelation came about because Ted Sturgeon was not only a great science fiction writer, but he was also a science fiction fan who loved to read. He hoped to encourage people to dive in and find the good stuff science fiction and fantasy had to offer. In short, that’s what I’ve been doing and I hope to see it pay dividends in the writing I produce.

10 comments on “Good Writing Requires Good Reading

  1. Greg Long says:

    I followed Stephen King’s advice before I had even read it. LOL. Alternatively, I was just very antisocial and enjoyed reading where-ever I went 🙂 Good post 🙂 Thanks 🙂

  2. I loved reading King’s On Writing – most of what he was saying was already firmly lodged in my mind, but it was nice to see a successful writer agree with my own frame of mind. Of course good writing requires good reading; it teaches you so much about genre, style, language, and much more. As for stealing ideas, I don’t think anything is original anymore and there’s always a fresh perspective to be taken. This was a really interesting read 🙂

    • Thanks for dropping by! There’s definitely a fine line between reading to see “how it’s done” and outright taking the words of others — and I suspect that really comes down to what a lot of writers call “voice.” When you find your unique voice as a writer, you find ways to adapt techniques and say them your way. Once you do that, you can bring new insights and your own perspective on those techniques that inspired you, in essence making them your own.

  3. paigeaddams says:

    I’m constantly reading, and my poor husband wishes I’d use the Kindle more than getting paperbacks. XD You’re right – there’s so much to learn from reading. I get a lot of inspiration from what does and doesn’t work for me as a reader. I feel like I’m especially weak in describing rooms and clothing, and seeing how others do that helps a lot. And on the extremely rare occasions where I nearly threw a book (blasphemy, I know) I learned a ton too, lol. XD

    • Thanks, Paige! One of my weaknesses is getting the emotion of a passage just right. Knowing that’s a weakness, I can watch for how other writers show but not tell this critical aspect of writing and I think it’s helped me improve over the years. Another good exercise is to go read reviews of the books you’ve read on Goodreads or Amazon. It’s interesting to see how sometimes there are elements of a story you loved that others will tear apart and likewise there are things you hated but people will praise. The lesson there is that different people have different tastes!

  4. sftrails says:

    Reading good.

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