Three Reasons to Read Everything
By G. Connor Salter
I don’t really read books anymore. These days, I devour them. I have some genres I like coming back to, but I tend to read all kinds of books – anything from Sherlock Holmes to Christian memoirs to graphic novels. Not only has this helped me be a versatile book reviewer, it’s also helped me grow as a writer. Few people realize that if you want to write well you don’t just have to read a lot. You also have to read as broadly as possible.
There are three excellent reasons why reading broadly is so important:
1)You Find Your Unique Voice
Several writers (including the late William Zinsser [insert link: http://www.slideshare.net/GlennLeibowitz/the-secret-of-good-writing-is-to-strip/5-Writing_is_learned_by_imitation]) have commented that your writing tends to sound like what you read.
This can be a great tool if you’re learning to write in a certain field. However, if you only read a narrow range of writers, you won’t develop a unique voice.
One of my writing mentors enjoys telling stories about someone he met at a writing conference who only read Ernest Hemingway and his stories sounded like second-rate Hemingway tales.
This explains why NY Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman commented in a 2011 podcast (insert link: http://nerdist.com/nerdist-podcast-106-neil-gaiman/) that writers must read outside their comfort zones.
“Read within that genre to understand what people are doing,” Gaiman advised, “but then go and read outside your comfort zone… [if] you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies. Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology.”
Every writer starts out imitating others’ work, writing in other writers’ voices. You need to outrun that as fast as you can, and one way you do that is by reading many different kinds of books.
2)You Get New Tools
Serious readers know that there is lots of variation in any genre -- compare a fantasy novel by J.K. Rowling with one by Stephen R. Donaldson, for example.
But even so, each genre tends to focus on certain things. There may be romance in a mystery novel, but since it’s about a mystery the novel will focus on mind games and plot advancement. By the same token, romance novels focus on passion over having an airtight plot.
By reading different kinds of books, you can learn what each genre emphasizes and then apply that knowledge to your own work. You pick up techniques you wouldn’t normally discover.
I discovered the value of this tactic when I wrote a sci-fi novella for a seminar. Another writer and I critiqued each other’s work, and one of the things she really praised me for was how I subtly introduced the story-world. I was able to smoothly tell readers where the story took place (an artificial planet in a distant future) and important facts (how the artificial planet came to be, the political forces controlling it) without slowing down the plot.
I didn’t learn this technique from science fiction novels. I learned it by reading the Cold War spy thriller “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
3)You Might Join The Future
If you’ve ever seen a book proposal, you know publishers prefer books to fit in strict categories (genre, target age group) so they can market those books to specific audiences.
However, postmodern literature has done a lot to bring those categories down. Books that couldn’t have been published forty years ago – such as gothic novels for children (“Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events”) or sci-fi novels with a crime noir taste (“Neuromancer”) – have appeared on bestseller lists and won major awards.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon noted in 2015 that we seem to be living in “the age of the mashup.” (insert link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oeyjn3EaHAM)
This means that while there will always be a market for genre fiction, stories that borrow from and exist somewhere between multiple genres are commercially viable and currently very popular. By reading as broadly as possible you not only grow as a writer, you might create stories that piggyback on this exciting new market.
Reading broadly can feel weird if you’re not used to it. Remember that your goal is to be the best writer you can possibly be, and reading broadly helps you accomplish that.
If it helps, approach reading the way you did as a kid -- no idea what you like yet, just exploring. Read broadly, and enjoy whatever you discover.
Bio: Connor Salter is a freelance writer, currently studying Professional Writing at Taylor University. He writes weekly articles for the Odyssey and has contributed work to many publications, including the “Waynesdale News” and “US Represented.” You can check out his website at gcsalter.wordpress.com.