1. Dawnless Sky
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    Dawnless Sky Member

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    Mandatory big reader background?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Dawnless Sky, Sep 21, 2013.

    There is no doubt that reading a lot will improve your own writing skills. But do you think it's mandatory to be a big reader in order to become a successful writer?

    I ask this because back in high school, I used to be a heavy reader. I'd go through about 2 or 3 novels a week and spent all my lunch breaks at the school library. However, I cannot remember pretty much everything I read. The only ones that stuck to my head are maybe Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and a few Stephen King. It feels like me being a big reader is somewhat a fake memory, so distant and blurry.

    For some reason, by the end of high school, my pace slowed and I'd read maybe one book a month. Once I got in college, I stopped reading altogether except for mandatory reading in English and French class.

    I'm now 26 which would mean I stopped reading for pleasure for a about a decade.

    I'm currently slowly getting back into it (and I do enjoy it a lot!) but I'm unsure how this huge hiatus is going to affect me as a writer. To put it lightly, I currently feel like a "noob" when it comes to literature.

    It seems like whenever you hear someone's success story they've been going at their craft since they could walk and know everything about their chosen field. You would never hear an actor say "yeah, I don't watch any movie" or a musician say "I don't listen to a lot of music".

    What do you guys think of this?
     
  2. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wouldn't worry about it so much, especially since you're trying to read more now. I've had periods in my life where I've read very little, and other times when I've read a lot. At one point I had a job where I had to be at the office for many hours, and I drove (instead of taking a train, bus, or subway), because I'd have to drive to court, then drive to the office, then drive home. I was also very dedicated to going to the gym. So when I got home, I was exhausted, and when I'd try to read, I'd fall asleep. Other times, I've had commutes on a train or subway, and I'd get a couple books or more read a week. Once, I even had a very boring job, where we were supposed to look busy, but for a few reasons, we weren't supposed to work all that fast -- there would only be about 2 hours worth of actual work sometimes for a 9 hour day. But we had to appear like we were working. I snuck in quite a bit of reading then.
     
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  3. Dawnless Sky
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    Dawnless Sky Member

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    Oh yeah, taking the bus to go to work has been a big game changer for me! So many stopped missed because I thought I could finish this chapter before getting to my destination xD

    Thanks for the input :)
    It's greatly appreciated.
     
  4. ddavidv
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    ddavidv Contributing Member

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    Voracious reading when you are younger isn't necessarily essential as you get older. I liken it to getting an education; it's perhaps not the content of the story that you are learning as much as the ebb and flow of the narrative. This is what separates a good storyteller from someone just typing a bunch of facts. I think whatever you learned while reading as a youth contributes subconsciously to your skill set, and you really never lose that.

    I put a hiatus on reading fiction for...wow, so many years I can't recall now. I dismissed reading fiction as frivolous, as I discovered how much I enjoyed non-fiction (mostly biographies and historical works). I've read only a handful of fiction books in the last several years. I still enjoy them, but feel like I'm using my reading time poorly. I know it's silly, but that's where I've been. However, now that I'm pounding away at a novel of my own, I'm seeing the folly in my non-fiction only lifestyle. But, I'm also not being influenced by anyone else's plot or characters...so there's good and bad to both.
     
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  5. Gallowglass
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    Gallowglass Contributing Member Contributor

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    It definitely helps. I've always compared seeing the improvement in your work that comes with reading to, as a bodybuilder, seeing the improvement in your physique: you get hooked.
     
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2013
  6. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    It depends on how you define success. A lot of the bestsellers aren't very good in my opinion, so if your goal is to get rich, I would say that reading a lot isn't a prerequisite. If, on the other hand, you want to win a prestigious award, I would say that you do need to read a lot because all the great writers I know of read a lot.
     
  7. kburns421
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    kburns421 Member

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    I have no proof, and my opinion is not an expert one, but this is also how I personally feel. I would go through numerous novels a week, sometimes a book a day, in middle and high school. When I started college, I started reading significantly less. I've been reading more again lately, but I think that what I learned from so much reading doesn't come from remembering the plots, the characters, the POVs, or even the exact ways different authors handled things like the passing of time. What I learned is more of a subconscious thing. I acquired a taste for words and picked up on a wide variety of ways to use them to create something that is more than just the words themselves.
     
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  8. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Although I think this is true, I think it is also a different story once you decide you want to write a novel. Once you have that in mind, and have actually tried to do it, I think there's a whole new perspective and a lot to be gained from reading fiction with an eye toward how an author is doing something, or really thinking about whether and why you like or don't like the book.

    Like @ddavidv, I generally enjoy nonfiction more than fiction. I went many years reading very little fiction. When I decided I wanted to write fiction, I knew I had to start reading more of it. I try (and really, have tried for a while) to alternate fiction and nonfiction. But, I have to admit, that the books I tend to get most excited about are nonfiction. One tidbit I have found -- I've really enjoyed reading biographies of fiction writers. It can be very interesting to see how their lives influenced their work. So that kind of gives me the best of both worlds -- I'm learning about fiction, but reading nonfiction.
     
  9. kburns421
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    kburns421 Member

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    You do have a point. Since deciding to try novel writing again, I have started to analyze books a little more to see whether their characters were developed, what POV they used, what it was that made them so good, etc. However, I still think the main benefit you get from being an avid reader is what you subconsciously learn. It's something that I feel you can't learn just by picking up some fiction for the first time and analyzing what you like about it. So I agree that both are important for different reasons.
     
  10. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think that you need to consciously remember the books you've read in order to get the benefit from them. Reading teaches you language, and that language will stick with you even after the books are forgotten. I'd guess that the other things that you learn about from reading--plots, characters, drama, all that--will also stick with you whether you remember the specific books or not.

    To use a weak analogy, you remember how to ride a bike or drive a car, even if almost all of the miles that you've ridden or driven are forgotten.
     
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  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    it's not a matter of consciously remembering what you read, but of 'absorbing' what good writing and not-so-good writing looks/reads/feels like, so you'll be able to tell the difference and when you start writing your own work, you'll have some idea of how to go about it...

    actors who are learning their craft must constantly 'absorb' how the best [and worst] actors do it by watching movies and aspiring musicians must constantly listen to music... so must aspiring writers read constantly...
     
  12. Steve Day
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    Steve Day Senior Member

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    Yes, of course reading is a good way to learn to write.
    Strike that.
    Writing is a good way to learn to write.
    Just as practice is a good way to 'get to Carnegie Hall.'

    (Of course, "reading" has several definitions. Pick upa Stephen King/Tom Clancy/Maeve Binchey and lose yourself in the story. Then go back to page one and study it. And when you are finished, do that again. Take notes. Then you will learn how a successful writer employs their craft.)
     
  13. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    sorry, but that makes no sense at all... any more than saying that flying is the best way to learn how to fly... if you're not a pilot, get in a plane, sit yourself down in the left seat and see how well you can take off and land in one piece, if you haven't first learned the basic principles of flight and what all the instruments mean, plus how to use them...

    no one can learn how to write well enough for others to want to pay to read what they write, if they don't FIRST do a lot of READING and CONTINUE to read good writing, to learn how it's done... if a beginner who doesn't read good writing and knows nothing about how to write well simply writes poorly over and over again, their writing will not magically improve..

    just as an aspiring professional violinist or pianist does not get any better at it if they don't FIRST and continually LISTEN to the masters, in order to learn what it sounds like when their instrument is played properly... simply practicing without listening to the masters will not get anyone to carnegie hall...
     
  14. slamdunk
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    I don't think its needed. More education or knowledge about a subject will not guarantee anything when it comes to a creative craft (knowledge/know-how does however adds to a CV if you are seeking a normal job).


    The people that know the most isn't always that creative. Albert Einstein for instance probably didn't know math/physics the best (data suggests he failed at math in school), yet he produced the e=mc2 formula and did more than most. Mark Zuckerberg probably wasn't the most educated programmer or the monster expert in databases (there was probably thousands of adults programmers knowing more at that time) yet he was the one that produced something amazing.

    I'm not saying that anyone mentioned above was badly educated but there was probably bigger experts in the field.

    There are so many teachers and painters out there that probably know more about painting than Pablo Picasso did. They may have long backgrounds from university and such, with countless hours done practising to paint and know how to draw lines, what there is to know about shading/pencils etc. They have studied the great painters and yet can't produce anything of interest. You can read books forever, but when it comes to a creative work that count for little/nothing if you don't produce. I think a sure signs that you are not going to write anything good are: liking all (or most) books you read. (this suggests that you have no idea what makes a good book to you, so how can you make a good book for others?). I wouldn't say "reading helps", it can help but you can probably read more books than Stephen King has and yet be one of those that just adds words to a paper (nothing people find interesting).
     
  15. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Good writing is the culmination of a number of different factors, and you ignore any one of them at your peril. As @mammamaia said, you do need to know what good writing looks and feels like. You also need an eye and ear for human behavior, human dilemmas and conflict. You need a familiarity with the range of circumstances over which human behavior occurs. You need a fertile imagination. It also helps, I think, to have a strong knowledge base in something specific, be it law, business, the arts, any of the sciences - something that will give you an insider's view of some aspect of human activity.

    We acquire these areas knowledge in many different ways - from reading, not only novels, but anything and everything we can get a hold of; from experience; from observation; and from innate abilities.

    The OP worried about a "gap" in extensive reading. My experience is that such is the normal way of things. And, as Liz pointed out, once you have decided that you want to write novels, then reading novels not only becomes more important, but how we read them changes greatly. It is not uncommon for me to read a novel now multiple times - the first for sheer enjoyment, and then multiple times to go back and see what makes it tick, what the writer did that I liked or didn't like, what I might do and what I wouldn't do in my own writing. Before taking on my current project, I went back and reread a few of my favorite historical novels in parts to get a sense of how the writers handled issues such as telescoping, the use of historical persons in fictional roles and the interaction of a present day story with the historical one.

    At the same time, reading alone will not make up for a lack of imagination, experience or observations.
     
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  16. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If you read a lot, you internalize the rules of good grammar even without being consciously aware of it. This is especially true if you read a lot when you're young - the younger the better. Start reading a lot as soon as you learn to read. I think (I don't have any research to back this up; it's just the way it seems to me) that if you read a pile of books before you enter your teens, you'll learn more about grammar, sentence construction, paragraph construction, etc. than you will if you read the same pile of books in your twenties. Of course, reading as an adult teaches higher-level skills, such as story construction, pacing, character development, and so on.

    I've known engineers, technicians, and business people of various kinds who don't read much as adults, but did read tons as kids. The writing they do (business writing, technical writing, correspondence, etc.) is excellent. They never studied English after high school (and only did the minimum even there), but their early reading taught them what sentences and paragraphs should look like - it taught them the basics of good writing. Conversely, I've met people who majored in English in university who write poorly. I believe it's because they came to their interest in literature much later in life, and hardly read at all when they were kids. These people can think well, and they understand all the higher-level aspects of fiction, but they're unclear on the basics.

    My recommendation: Read a lot when you're a kid! Keep reading, of course, when you're older, but be aware that what you're learn from your adult reading might not be the same as what you learned from your childhood reading.
     
  17. LeighAnn
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    LeighAnn Member

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    I don't like making blanket statements, but I can tell you about me. I read 100-120 books a year (I've been doing that for over a decade now). I've been reading complex stories since I was 6 years old, at which time I read about 40 books a year. It absolutely helps.
     
  18. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    that's close to my own reading record... though i read more than 40 per year from the start at about 5 and have been reading 1-3 books per week for many decades, since i was old enough to climb into the bookmobile, or walk to the library...

    and i've been a better writer than most, ever since i began to write full sentences... cause and effect?... i'd have to assume so, with some inborn talent tossed in...
     

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