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Q&A: Will a Lifetime of Reading Make You a Better Writer?
Or just a better reader?
Yesterday on Facebook someone challenged the idea that you must first be a long-time, dedicated reader before you can become a successful writer. He claimed to have read somewhere that a lifetime of reading only makes you a better reader and has nothing to do with your skills as a writer.
I thought about that and tried to imagine coming at writing without having a long history of reading for pleasure. As a kid I always had a book in my hand and preferred going off somewhere quiet to immerse myself in whatever story I happened to be reading that day.
At the same time, I recognized that not everybody did that, and especially not kids. I was teased for it, sometimes unmercifully, and I think now that I really did miss out on many childhood pleasures by refusing to engage in the real world, preferring an exotic or pretend world instead. Reading seemed natural. Moving from reading to writing almost had to happen.
But what about people who didn’t spend their early years reading but now want to write? They can’t go back and re-do the past and they can’t possibly catch up, but writing is all they want to do now. How will they do it? My answer to that person on Facebook, as I look at it now, was dismissive and cavalier and not at all helpful.
This is what I wrote:
If, as a writer, you don't have a long, varied background in reading how could you possibly know what works in writing and what doesn't? A lifetime of reading gives you an invaluable edge. Those words have seeped in, almost like osmosis, and you construct your own worlds, not by copying but by remembering and recognizing that certain words, certain ways of delivering them, have power. I pity the writer who thinks a lifetime of reading isn't good practice. Their work ahead will be so much harder.
So I’m asking you, because I can only look at it from my own sequestered point of view, can writers successfully navigate the process without being voracious readers first? Emphasis on ‘voracious’, because we can’t get through life without reading. We read instructions and labels and the news and enough to get through school, but is the need, the habit, the JOY of reading a prerequisite for writing?
And if it isn’t, how else do we learn to write?
Comments, as always, are open. I’d love to know how others come at this. The whole idea of becoming a writer is a constant mystery.
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