If you’re not a reader, for Pete’s sake, stop trying to be a writer


When I taught college-level journalism, I was convinced that some of my reporting and feature writing students never read newspapers.

Other than wondering what the hell they were doing in my classroom, it was clear to me that those who didn’t read the news would probably never learn how to write it. News and feature stories have a noticeable organization and style.

Long-time journalists can hear the cadence of a “properly written” news story inside their heads. Stands to reason, then, that reading—in this case, the news—will help you learn the fundamentals of reporting much faster in a classroom and on the job than being clueless about it.

Aspiring poets and novelists who don’t read poems and novels

Author and editor C. Hope Clark (“Lowcountry Bribe”) wrote in a February 28th post at read.learn.write that in her consulting and speaking work, she finds a lot of aspiring writers who seldom read:

The world abounds with writers. Everyone wants his name, photo and title on a bookstore shelf, as a minimum on Amazon. But amazingly enough, most of them are not voracious readers. They are spitting out words, but taking few in. It’s like using a shotgun instead of a high-powered rifle. The result isn’t very refined, the results less satisfactory.

Some years ago, when desktop publishing programs made it easier to create newsletters, brochures, and posters on a PC screen, a lot of big corporations cut the writers from their staffs because—the bean counters seasoned—anyone could use the software and create something that looked like a newsletter, brochure or poster. Who needed actual writers? The results were a mess, and since the bean counters never read anything anyway, they didn’t know the results were a mess.

The Internet is (perhaps) today’s desktop publishing

The Internet has not only reduced our attention spans, it’s given all of us the power to create materials that look like e-zines, blogs, books, magazine articles and poems. No experience necessary. Simply log on and create.  Clark says that “The slogan ‘reading is fundamental’ is remarkably accurate. Somewhere along the line, however, between elementary school and college, reading falls by the wayside. Teaching to tests, however, and not enticing children to fall in love with words, has stolen their ability to perform later in life.”

As a writer, I’m biased: I think all of us need to learn how to read and then not let the skill get away from us. And, we’re talking novels, essays, commentaries, features and criticism here, not just the back of the cereal box or the “Trending Now” links on the Yahoo screen. Having worked in corporate America, I can testify to the fact that a lot of stuff got screwed up because the people reading the reports and white papers and trade magazine article weren’t really getting it. They skimmed and/or couldn’t follow a logical argument in print.

What do I have to do to become a writer?

The Internet, and that includes a few well-known print-on-demand book publishers, gives the impression the answer is nothing. Just put one word after another until you reach the required word count for a short story or a book, format it, and you’re done. And when nobody reads it, the first thing you’ll hear from “the writer” is the accusation that there’s a conspiracy out there. Amazon, BIG PUBLISHING, the government, the search engines, the service providers and the reviewers had nothing better to do that get together in a bar and decide to stomp down some a book that otherwise would have won the Booker, Nobel, and Pulitzer prizes.

The speculation about “What the hell happened to my book?” seldom includes any need to learn the art and craft of writing first. And this goes back to something very fundamental: Reading. That’s where becoming a writer starts, and it never stops.



23 responses

  1. Hey Malcolm–great post here. It’s so true and sad that people stop reading after college. I think that for avid readers who are also writers, a good book inspires the writing…the writing shouldn’t inspire reading a good book. For me, it was Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, that inspired me to write historical fiction. (I’m currently in the editing process of my first book of that genre.)

    I wrote to him once to thank him, for inspiring me and writing so well…he wrote back in a few hours, which I thought was cool. But his book, and his response (which included that it took him 8 years to write and finish the sequel, World Without End–also very good) inspired me not only to write…but to keep reading.

    I hope people who read this blog entry you’ve written will take it to heart.



  2. I taught college journalism as well and told any student who wasn’t reading a daily paper to do me a favor and drop my class since they clearly weren’t very motivated…I meant it.

    There is a widespread fantasy that hitting enough keys is “writing.” It may look and sound like writing, but it reads like…

  3. Agreed! I came across someone on a writing forum just the other day who said he’s so busy he doesn’t really have time to read anything other than his own stuff. No one quite knew how to respond.

    • I think sometimes people believe they don’t have enough time…but anyone who is busy can still find time to read. One summer I gave up television–I didn’t even watch the news. Instead, I found myself reading a lot more–I started playing piano also. People have more time than they think, but they just need to find ways to prioritize better.

      Back in the day, before TV & radio, people read to one another for entertainment. (I promise, this comment isn’t just anti-TV.) I think with all the stuff on the tube these days, it’s really easy to forget just how exciting a good book can be. Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir. 😉 Out of curiosity, what was the forum? Is it open to the public?

        • It’s true. That’s why I like BufferApp & WordPress publicize. They allow one to have a presence on FB and Twitter without actually *being* on FB and Twitter. 🙂

      • Absolutely – it was on the Amazon fora. I don’t remember specifically where, but think it was on the Kindle boards. He was both a writer and musician and read his own writing and listened to his own music (which sounds quite lonely to me!).

        And as you said, Malcolm, Facebook, Twitter, etc. also take up enormous amounts of time. It’s easy to get sucked in without realizing how much time has gone by.

        • Wow, that really says a lot about his writing and music. Kind of sounds like he carries a lot of self-importance too. Ah well, I think most readers can still tell writing from fluff.

  4. I agree (and I didn’t skim this post). The ability to write well comes from reading others. It’s difficult to know what good material is if you’ve never read. I can’t really understand writers who aren’t readers. The only time I’m not reading is if I’m writing myself (It distracts me to read as I’m trying to write). I think reading also gives you an idea of what’s going on in the genre that you’re writing for. You’ll learn what’s liked and what’s not by the reader.

    Great post!

  5. Bravo! Yes, I have a couple of wanna-be writer friends who insist that *their* books are different from anything else out there.

    Turns out, of course, that they have NO IDEA if this is true, because they don’t read what else is out there. *sighing* And their work shows it.

  6. Pingback: Book Bits #160 – New BP book, ‘Arcadia,’ Hitchens re-issues, writing tips and news | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions

  7. Reading your own work is not a bad idea, especially if it helps you catch typos like “seasoned” where you meant “reasoned” or “some” where you meant “on.” Considering some of the drivel that gets published these days, it seems that reading other people’s work is only good for finding examples of “how not to write.” For newly published works, it seems I can only get past page 40 in one out of five books because I get frustrated and disgusted by bad writing. Sure, an aspiring writer should know the classics, but unless you want to write like you are 100-200 years old, you’d best keep some distance from those writing styles. You’re better off trying to figure out *why* you like a story than simply trying to familiarize yourself with Checkhov, Dickens, or Twain.

    In the case of a field like journalism, when you ask tyros to steep themselves in current news writing, you run the risk of making the field stagnant and formulaic — innovative writing is discouraged in favor of the “way we’ve always done it” approach. It’s a rare writing teacher/coach/mentor who says, “This has become the standard because we want to achieve goal X and avoid pitfall Y. If you see a better way of doing that, then go for it.” Of course, you have to know the “rules” before you can effectively break them, but you don’t get that from just reading; you must read critically. How many writing teachers teach *that*? Not many, partly because they hate to see their favorite works/authors get picked apart, and partly because they don’t know how to teach it. Knowing how to do it and knowing how to teach it are two very different animals.


    • Interesting perspective, Bint, though I’m not quite sure–when it comes down to it–what you’re suggesting. Should we just stop reading? And if we do stop, how do we know there’s nothing out there we would like? Or, perhaps I’m less cynical, because I do find things I want to read.