Writers Must Be Readers. Period.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut…

“The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor…

“It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but didn’t have time to read, I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

~ Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir

(HT Justin Taylor)


31 thoughts on “Writers Must Be Readers. Period.”

  1. My favorite Stephen King writing quote — “Only God did it right the first time. Don’t be a fool. Rewrite.” I couldn’t agree with you more — it’s the “garbage in — garbage out” principle. You not only have to read, but you have to read superb writing. Amen.

    1. The book is fantastic. It’s 192 pages and I have 40 dog ears on my copy (with sometimes more than one quote marked on the dog-eared page). I don’t read horror, so never had read Stephen King, but this is an awesome treatise. I pull quotes for my students, and show a chunk at the end where he shows a re-write. So valuable to see the process. (and I can say, “If Stephen King re-writes- so can you!”).

      1. King is such a great (and criminally underrated) writer; I always appreciate his craftsmanship even when I don’t care for the story. On Writing is due for a reread, I think – definitely one to revisit often.

  2. Ugh… Ooh, I don’t like this!! Only because I really don’t care for reading. I have the time for it.. just not the effort. But, I guess I better get on to it if I want to be a better writer!
    Thanks for sharing this and pricking me with the ‘pen’… hah! ;)

      1. Oh, the puns! *faints*


        Anyway, thanks for a great post. I’ve actually been really intrigued with a lot that Stephen King says on writing…..

        Anyway, though, I don’t think I have this issue right now…. unless 104 library books at a time isn’t enough…..???

        Of course, that’s how it is with everything- how could you (if you were my mom, for instance) make good quilts if you don’t study those of other people? What about movies? In film school half the work is watching other people’s films. And drawing!! You couldn’t get better at art if you didn’t study it, now, could you?

        Anyway. Great reminder there, Sir Ink Slinger :D

      2. HA!! I really hope so! My problem is finding those good, classic literature books… I mean, I probably should read something besides Jane Austen.. hehe!

        1. @Sarah: Yeah… Austen is great, but you’ll probably want to mix things up about. Though I’ve little doubt she’s great when it comes to studying the art of persuasion. ;)

          @The Director: Bingo! Great thoughts! :)

  3. So, before I give you my extended thoughts, I have a question for you, Corey… Do you agree with King on this issue? I assume you do, since you posted it on your blog, but I wanted to clarify. :)

    1. Yes, I agree with King. Definitely. Not only because I, personally, have experienced it, but because when you look at all the great writers of the past (and present), the same is true of them.

      1. *nods* I beg to differ. Unfortunately, I am a professional author and screenwriter, and I don’t read hardly at all, although I manage to squeeze some beta-reading in there sometimes.

        I used to read prolifically. As a child I tore through books. Then I grew old, busy – and more discerning. I tried to graduate to YA fiction and was appalled by the content. Suddenly I couldn’t find anything to read. So I wrote instead.

        One of my motivations to write has always been lack of reading material. I wanted to write what didn’t exist, not only for myself, but also for my peers who were facing the same lack of material. Now writing is a full-time pursuit for me, and I don’t have time to read.

        Worse, I’m a viciously critical reader. It is incredibly hard to engross me in a book. I am notorious for not finishing books, or skipping around and reading a few random scenes out of order. When I do make an effort to read, I’m agonizingly slow at it. It can actually be pretty draining for me to read long periods of time, especially if the book actually manages to catch my attention – at which point I become incredibly engrossed in the world.

        Therefore, I am one of the few writers who is not a reader. Perhaps I’m an exception to the rule in more ways than one, but the fact stands – I don’t read. Sometimes I don’t even enjoy reading. I can’t and won’t deny that.

        It seems weird, even to me. Why would I write when I don’t even read for recreation? I don’t know. But at this point, I do not feel like lack of reading is affecting my ability to write. At the moment, the feedback on my writing – including that from you, Corey – seems to say otherwise. ;)

        A lot of great writers are readers, and reading definitely helps one’s writing, even if you don’t read a lot. But I believe that “writers must be readers” is not an unbreakable rule. Writing is a creative art, and people pursue it in different ways and for different reasons. Most writers are readers – but I believe you don’t have to be.

        Now, I do watch movies fairly frequently, and I do study those for story structure. Interestingly, most of the writing methods I’ve had good success with are derived from filmmaking. Movies are stories too, simply in another format, so I think there is a lot to be learned by studying films as well as books.

        Thanks for hearing me, the quirky heretical writer, out. ;)

  4. Thanks for laying your case out, Aubrey. But – like you – I beg to differ. ;)

    “One of my motivations to write has always been lack of reading material.”

    You say you were appalled by the YA fiction you attempted to read. And while I would agree that much of that genre is absolute garbage, there are exceptions. Lloyd Alexander, Suzanne Collins, etc. – to name a few.

    But let’s assume all YA fiction is trash. Even with that being the case, why should that stop you from reading other genres? What about the classics? What about the works of Dickens, Lewis, Tolkien, Dostoyevsky, Bradbury, or A.C. Doyle?

    You don’t have to write in the same genres as Tolkien or Dickens to benefit from their work.

    “Now writing is a full-time pursuit for me, and I don’t have time to read.”

    This is like a pianist saying he doesn’t have time to practice scales; or an engineer saying he doesn’t have time to learn the multiplication table; or a filmmaker saying he doesn’t have time to learn how a camera works.

    It sounds to me like you think reading takes away from time that could be spent writing. But it really doesn’t. Reading is an investment – do it, and the pay-off in your writing life will be extraordinary.

    “But at this point, I do not feel like lack of reading is affecting my ability to write. At the moment, the feedback on my writing – including that from you, Corey – seems to say otherwise.”

    The key there is at the moment. You’ve got great talent, Aubrey. I’ll certainly give you that. But artists can only ride the wave of talent for so long. The creative juices must be renewed and encouraged, and the best way to do that is to study the works of the great men and women in your particular field of interest – whether that be writing, painting, composing, etc.

    The point of writing (as with any art) is to get better and better at it, right? To become the master of your pen, and produce work that gets finer, more polished, more magnificent with each try. How can you do that if you stay locked up in only one creative world – your own?

    Tolkien once remarked that his ideas grew out of the “leaf mold” of his mind; your readings are the trees where your fallen leaves come from. As Doug Wilson puts it, “Mind mulch. Cognitive compost.” :)

    “Sometimes I don’t even enjoy reading. I can’t and won’t deny that.”

    I understand what you’re saying; but I would also argue that just because something isn’t naturally enjoyable, doesn’t mean it should be skipped. Reading is a way of exercising one’s mental muscles, if you will – it’s not necessarily fun, or painless, but it pays off in more ways than one. As the fellow says, “No pain, no gain.”

    “Interestingly, most of the writing methods I’ve had good success with are derived from filmmaking. Movies are stories too, simply in another format, so I think there is a lot to be learned by studying films as well as books.”

    Agreed. Filmmaking is an excellent thing for writers to study. But it must not be overlooked that books and movies are still two different artistic mediums. You can get lots of good story material from watching a movie; but what about prose? What about “wordsmithing”? Movies have little (if anything) to offer that way. Books are the place to go for that.

    Hmmm… that was more like a complete blog post than a comment, but, oh well. :D Thanks for the discussion.

  5. *warm smile* Thanks for hearing me out – and for putting careful thought into your reply! I definitely think another blog post with your thoughts on this subject would be enjoyable to read. Quotes are nice, but the blog writer’s personal thoughts are always more valuable. :)

    I actually agree with most of your points. I am not arguing against the benefit of reading for writers. I won’t even deny the fact that I should read more. (And I am working on it. At least, I have figured out how to get significantly more beta-reading done.)

    What I disagree with is the absoluteness of the rule, which is reflected in your post title – “Writers must be readers. Period.” I politely but firmly disagree that reading is irrevocably essential to writers, to the point of saying that someone can’t be a writer if they are not a reader. I think this is unfair, because I believe that no one – not even a master in the art – has the authority to dictate how someone else approaches the craft.

    I want to suggest that it is possible for a writer not to be a reader. It might not be common, or even a good idea, but I don’t think it’s fair to rule it out. I say this for a couple of reasons – a) because writing is a creative art, b) because everyone is different, and c) because reading is not the only way to learn about writing.

    On (a), writing is an art form. Like any art form, there are lists upon lists of rules for what makes “good” art. Some rules are written by experts; others are written by tradition, by a knowledge of what has worked in the past. All of these rules are valid, and they’re in place for a good reason. But ultimately, art is a creative pursuit. No rule is absolute.

    Take, for instance, the rule that sentences must be complete thoughts. This is a valid rule for obvious reasons – it makes things easier to read! However, writers are free to break it. Sentence fragments can be used very effectively, if they are used intentionally and masterfully. The same goes, I believe, for any other writing rule – including those rules that govern how a writer approaches their craft.

    I don’t believe there are rules for what a writer must do or not do, nor do I believe there are any absolute rules for who a writer must be or not be. I believe this because (b) everyone is different. Not only do people learn in different ways, but they have different personalities and reasons for writing.

    Take, for example, painting. One can learn the art of painting in a variety of ways. Some go to school and study a classical approach; some have a private tutor; some teach themselves with how-to books; and some simply start painting. While people may argue in favor of a particular method, ultimately they are all valid approaches. The classical artist may have valid arguments for why one must study Van Gogh to be a good painter, but the person who simply doodles in the backyard is still a painter and is still creating worthwhile, honest art.

    The Van Gogh fan and the backyard doodler probably have different goals for painting. Perhaps the college student plans to become an art teacher, while the backyard citizen is just having fun. Therefore, their approaches to the art of painting are naturally going to be different. It would be unnecessary to force the backyard doodler to take four years of college at an art school to learn how to paint.

    However, if the backyard doodler should find he have a talent for art, it is not the college student’s place to say the doodler isn’t an artist (or can’t be) because they didn’t study Van Gogh. Similarly, if the doodler decides to pursue art professionally, they are not obliged to go to school and get a degree before trying to sell their art. They are welcome to take another route to building up their skills and finding a market for their art.

    I’m not advocating hitting it lucky here. It happens; some people just have a gift, or have a unique opportunity to be a one-hit wonder. However, those are exceptions, not norms. Rather, I’m advocating that there are multiple ways to go about learning a craft. I believe that reading is not the only way to learn about writing (c).

    Some painters go to school. Others might paint until they’ve filled their entire basement with discarded artwork. The latter might not have any classical training, but if they make art that sells (or serves whatever purpose they have for it), they are successful.

    Reading is only one way to learn about writing. Pounding out millions of words is another. Studying movies helps for certain aspects, as does talking with other writers and any number of other things. There are many ways to learn how to paint, and there are many ways to learn how to string words together on paper effectively.

    Reading is very helpful for writing. I shall not deny that in the slightest, and I apologize if my comment came off as doing so. However, I disagree that reading is undeniably essential for writing in every situation. And this ridiculously long comment is my explanation of why. :D

    I do not want to discourage any writers from reading. But I also do not want to discourage anyone from writing based on how much they read, nor will I judge their works based on how much they read. Their writing will speak for itself, outside of their background.

    Thanks for hearing me out (again)! :D

    1. Ah, well, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. :) I agree that reading isn’t the only way to improve your writing skills – but it is, I believe, the primary way. And though you don’t have to read in order to be a writer, I would argue that you do have to read if you want to be a great writer.

  6. I have been told to express my opinion here, rather than keeping my thoughts to myself.

    Stephen King is absolutely right, of course. And for the majority of aspiring writers it is simply that they think they don’t need to read, just like they think they don’t need to understand grammar, or the basics of story. People ask me where I get my ideas from, and I can trace them back to usually half a dozen or more books I’ve read. I combine pieces of essences from all over the place. I am an avid reader, and I would not be a writer without that.

    However, Aubrey speaks truly. You see, Aubrey started as a scriptwriter. As such she learned her craft from film, rather than novels. Just as a ballet dancer can easily switch to tap dancing without having to train all over again, once a writer you can switch between fields without stress or trauma.

    Why is reading so important to a writer? Well, where else are you to learn practical application? There are two basic building blocks to fiction: Story and Structure. So many people who have a favorite author come out copying that author; just count the number of novels that are essentially a retelling of Lord of the Rings or Eragon. If you learn from only one source you’re trapped in that author’s world. There are a million places to learn those two basics, and reading books is the simplest and most obvious.

    Since I became interested in filmmaking I’ve watch more movies than I have read books. My writing hasn’t suffered, because I pick up more story ideas than I know what to do with. You can learn Story from Film. The other element is structure, the one that sticks longest with an author. I originally learned story structure from reading Shakespeare. You can see this in all my early works because I wrote in five acts. Reading other books didn’t help break me of this, but talking with other people did. You can learn structure from blog posts, forum discussion, writing technique books, non-fiction, or just plain hard trial and error.

    Therefore, while I agree that reading is absolutely important, and any aspiring author should definitely go out and grab a book, it isn’t the *only* method of learning. Other methods are harder, and perhaps less effective, but they certainly do exist.

    1. Agreed. And thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts! :)

      I’m not arguing that reading is the sole way a writer improves his writing; I don’t think King is arguing that either. What I am saying – and what I believe King is saying, as well – is that reading should be a major part of every writers life. It isn’t optional.

      Learning from discussion forums, talking with friends, watching movies, etc. are all worthy pursuits for a writer. I use them quite a bit myself, and I’m very, very thankful that they exist. But these things should never replace the actual reading of books.

  7. Indeed, writers must be readers…of quality only. It is a shame to see so much drivel lining the shelves of stores these days- a sign someone isn’t following my advice.

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