There is a mantra among many writers: to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. Many have taken this to mean that you need to read widely, reading every published book you can get your hands on. Some insist that you need to read at least a book a week while others spout that it’s one a month. However, is all that reading of the published works really doing your writing any good? Let me explain.
I see many new writers take on this vague advice and try to emulate what it is they see in those published works, only to get depressed when they produce something that is not even close. When I tell them that perhaps they’re reading the wrong stories, they get affronted.
“But Jane Austin is a classic.”
“Did you like it?”
“Well, no. I found it hard to read.”
“Then why did you try to emulate it? Write the book you wish you could read.”
Simple enough advice, but it adds even more confusion when people keep reading only the published works.
Here’s the way I see it… Reading published works gives you an idea of what the publishers have published in the past. Yes, you can read a recently published book, but that manuscript was still bought by the publisher months ago, even a year ago. That writing is past writing. To complicate matters, that writing is polished, edited writing (or at least one hopes it is). When you see a story in print, you have no idea how long it took for the writer to craft that story. You don’t know how many rounds of edits it went through, how many people provided feedback and made the pages of the drafts bleed. By reading a published book, you are seeing the finished product, not the hard work that went into that product.
Many new writers can become incredibly daunted by reading only published stories. The truth of how hard it really is to turn those stories into masterpieces is hidden from them. They embark on a journey of their own and quickly become disillusioned, not understanding why their stories are being rejected by publishers at every turn.
“But I read a lot?”
“That may be true, but how much reading do you do of the works from other writers who are at the same stage as you? How many unpublished stories do you read?”
If you really want to develop your writing skills, instead of focusing on what publishers have printed in the past — looking at only finished products — take the time to witness first-hand the development process within another writer. Join a critiquing group or a critiquing site and read through the scores of unpublished stories. Some will be rough — very rough — while others will sparkle and captivate your imagination, even if the wording is a little off.
By reading unpublished works, you will start to understand what is needed to really take your own writing to the next level, how a story could be crafted. You’ll see exactly how much hard work might have gone into those published novels that you love so much. You’ll begin to understand that writing the story is the easy part: turning it into something worth reading is where the true talent of the writer lies.
I’m an advocate of reading the published works for pleasure only. These works are already in print: why are you spending the time tearing them apart? And if you hated that book so much, why did you bother reading it?
This, I supposed, brings me to the next argument as to why reading published works only can be detrimental to your writing development. Let’s take one of the works that many writers say they hate: 50 Shades of Gray.
Before anyone goes and trashes this post because I’ve mentioned the shady book, I should point out that I’ve never read it. I’ve never seen the movie either. I have no desire to. Why? Because the subject matter doesn’t interest me. Remember that I’m an advocate of reading published works for pleasure. Why would I waste my time reading something that doesn’t interest me? Just so I can take part in the book bashing? Sorry, guys, but that’s not the way I work.
In truth, it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else thinks of the writing. 50 Shades has done extremely well and E.L. James is now laughing all the way to the bank. The book has sold millions of copies and the movie was big enough of a success that the studio decided to make a sequel. Poor writing or not, you can’t diminish the facts: it’s a successful book.
The new writer comes along and sees the book’s success, after which, they will do one of three things: become totally disillusioned by the publishing industry and never bother trying to write a book of their own; try to emulate 50 Shades and its success; decide that they can write a better book, likely struggling every step of the way. (Only those who persevere will survive.)
By shifting your reading away from the published only, you discover writers who are entirely new, who the world has never seen before. You gain confidence within your own abilities, seeing the truth behind how stories are really crafted — you know you’re not alone. You develop the support network filled with those who suffer from the same struggles and knock backs. And most importantly, you develop your editing skills, learning how one might change the bits that aren’t working and enhance the bits that are. You develop the real skills of a writer.
To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader of the unpublished works.
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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2017