My current read is Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and in reading it, I got to thinking about the first King book I ever read cover-to-cover: On Writing.
I’m generally not one for books on writing. There are two exceptions — the aforementioned King tome and Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story (honorable mention to Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants!, though I don’t consider that a true “book on writing”) — but for the most part, books on the craft of writing, or how to write, either leave me incredibly bored or intimidated to the point where I no longer want to write.
Suffice it to say, you’ll likely never see me write such a book. The fact is, writing is such an individual vocation that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to it. Sure, there are conventions of spelling and grammar and the like, but the craft of writing? The art of it? Giving advice on that is often a fool’s errand.
Fact is, writing advice is rarely worth the paper (or screen) it’s printed on. Not because whoever shares it is wrong, but because no one thing works for everyone. A tenet of writing I swear by might be the completely wrong approach for someone else, and vice versa. There are so many different paths to writing that to tell us to adhere to one over all others doesn’t work.
But there is one thing I will cling to until the day I die, and every time I get asked what writers need to do (aside from actually writing) to improve, I say the same thing every time:
I’m not the first to argue this point — King himself extols the virtues of reading in On Writing — but it stands to reason. The only two things a writer can do to improve in the craft is to practice it and study it. The act of writing is, obviously, the practice… which makes reading the study.
I’m not saying you should read solely for the purpose of studying. That’s too much like school, and it was the books I was forced to read in school that robbed me of my love of reading for so long — and I’m sure I’m not alone in that (I couldn’t tell you I enjoyed any of the books I was made to read in middle and high school). Rather, I think the studying inherent in reading, for a writer, is subconscious. You don’t realize you’re doing it while you’re doing it, but the results will show up on your page. You’re still reading for enjoyment, but you’re also adding tools to your box.
Reading, in all its forms, can shape you as a writer. Which is why I believe one should never limit reading to just one genre. You should absolutely read books similar to whatever you’re writing, but also read stories that are nothing like what you’re writing. Read every genre that even remotely interests you… and maybe give a genre you have no interest in at all a try.
Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Autobiographies. Blog posts. Magazines and newspapers are also things you should be reading (yes, the latter still exists). Even if you’re reading these things on a digital device instead of in a paper publication, it still counts.
You’ll expand your vocabulary. You’ll expose yourself to different modes of storytelling, different writing styles. Even something you didn’t enjoy can teach you things about your own writing. Broaden your horizons as a reader, commit to reading at least a little bit each day, and you will see the results without even truly realizing it.
It’s no coincidence that every time I’m struggling as a writer, I’ve also hit a reading snag. The more I read, the better and more productive I am as a writer.
This is why I carve out time each day to read; even if it’s only a chapter, I make sure to read something each day. Not just because I enjoy reading, but because I know it’s helping me every time I sit at the keyboard.
In short, if you’re a writer who doesn’t have shelves teeming with books and/or an e-reader full of things to read, then you’re depriving yourself of a surefire way to both improve and become more productive as a writer.
Besides, didn’t you fall in love with storytelling because of someone else’s stories?
About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.