In her book, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp writes, "In order to be habitually creative, you have to know how to prepare to be creative." For most writers, that means reading — a lot. Not just reading books about writing, or even about the subject that you're hoping to write about. Most writers find inspiration in reading books on a variety of topics, absorbing both information and ideas about other writers’ styles. Researchers agree that reading leads to better writing. So, if you're an aspiring writer looking for an excuse to spend more time immersed in your Scribd library, read on.
When Tropic of Cancer author Henry Miller reflected on the writing process, he famously declared, "When you can’t create, you can work." Work can and should include things like reading for research purposes — if your novel is set in 1920s Berlin, read a historical memoir from that time and place. But it can also include reading a book about writing, like Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style by Kurt Vonnegut, that may provide fresh ideas to help you get back to writing.
In fact, researcher and author Yellowlees Davis, PhD, has been studying how our brains comprehend writing and reading for decades — even authoring a book called The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. She argues that reading works that inspire you just before beginning to write can help you master the tone you’re striving for. "Whatever you read right before you sit down to write, has a really powerful priming effect,” she says. “You're caught up in the cadence of that voice, particularly if it's a voice you admire. So I locate. So when I sit down to write, I think about what tone I want to take, and read something that’s in that style to get me into the right mindset.”
"Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it," famed author William Faulkner once said in an interview. "Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out.”
Davis agrees with this, to a point. Skimming articles online or glancing through a detective novel without actually absorbing the words, sentence by sentence, won’t have the same effect as pouring over the sentence and paragraph structure of a classic novel or a piece in a literary journal like The Atlantic.
A 2018 study found that for students pursuing master’s degrees requiring a large amount of academic writing, reading habits directly correlated to the success of their writing. And the reading wasn't restricted to their specific area of study: As long as they were reading, students were able to make new connections, improve their vocabularies, and more easily master smoother sentence structures. A 2019 study verified these findings and showed that any college student with a regular reading habit benefited in their writing and subsequent grades.
“English grammar makes very little sense when you try to write out all the rules,” says Davis. “Most people learn grammar and the nuances of it from reading.” Read more, and you’ll learn more about how sentences can be structured. In fact, she’s found that asking ESL students to simply read more classic novels has a profound effect on their ability to write in English, even if they’re reading books far above their current comprehension level.
Reading others' writing can also help get you out of a box you might’ve built around yourself, stylistically. For fiction writers, there's a tendency to get into a groove with a specific tense or point of view (third-person versus first-person). But reading an inspiring work of fiction written in present tense, third-person omniscient may be a great way to break out of your past tense, first-person rut and try something new.
Reading also offers an effective reminder that putting words onto a page isn't revolutionary or terrifying. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, horror author Stephen King wrote, "The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing... 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's much easier to "sandbox" a new story idea if you've spent time reading different styles of writing rather than relying solely on what’s in your own head.
5 Books on Writing
For reading inspiration directly related to writing, check out these titles about the art of crafting a novel or nonfiction narrative by renowned masters of the craft: