Do You Have to Read to Be a Great Writer?

This has come up often in my various online writing groups:

There’s a writer, new to the world of compiling stories in a text based format. Like me, they want to be the next Ms. J.K. Rowling…

They have a manuscript ready for review and are eager to either workshop or jump straight into finding the agent that will make their dreams come true.

The only catch: they haven’t read a book in years, and this really doesn’t sit well with a lot of other writers. “How can you not love reading?” the other writers ask. The non-readers become pariahs in a community that was meant to support them.

In their defense, aren’t writing and reading separate activities with one being passive and the other active?

To me, it’s ok that that non-reading writers do not read; I’m not out to manage anyone else’s time, but I’m wondering if writers can become great if they don’t.

I tried to do some research.

I put “Famous authors who don’t like to read,” into Google, but I only found various sites telling me that this idea doesn’t exist. In order to write you MUST read! Article after article says it, so it must be true. On the other hand, there are some Reddit threads of people thinking it’s ok for writers to not read.

There’s an article from Salon; however, that I found interesting. It attributed a growing list of writers not reading to our culture:

Or maybe the bolder point is that craft is of little interest to certain want-to-be writers. In our 15-megabytes of fame culture that favors quantities — friends, followers, number of comments — over quality this might be what it all comes down to, because if you can be recognized and rewarded as a writer without being much of a reader, guess what, most people will not try to read James Joyce.

Is it fair to say that all non-reading writers are just out for the fame? Sure, especially when a lot of reading writers are doing it for the same reasons.

I will openly admit that I have not had a huge amount of sales, but I have two shrines in various workplaces with my books on display. Whether these people have read my work or not, they know I have tangible books out there in the world that people are reading, thus identifying me as a writer. The books don’t have to be good for this to be part of my identity; they just have to exist. I love identifying as a writer and that others identify me as one.

To conclude, my research didn’t really answer my question on whether you have to read to be a great writer.

If anything, it led to more.

Despite respecting the non-reading writers, I haven’t lost hope in converting them into avid readers. Sometimes we just need to be introduced to a new perspective.

Here is my response to the top three reasons that I’ve been told why writers don’t read:

There’s never enough time:

That’s a valid point no matter what a person is trying to accomplish. There are only 24 hours in a day. Other than a serious dedication to time management, it’s hard to find a solution to this universal problem. Do you really have zero time to read, or do you not want to invest your time on it? Even 10 minutes a day is better than 0. I learned that philosophy from Hal Eldrod’s Miracle Morning.

In 10 minutes a day, maybe you could get a book read every few months. That puts you leagues ahead of fellow non-readers!

Which leads to the next reason also involving time: It takes away from writing time.

This is also legitimate. I read less when I’m writing, and write less when I’m reading, but I’m still always doing both within my day. When I was going for my B.A. in Creative Writing, I had already developed a deep link between reading and writing (which is probably why I am super judgmental in regards to writers needing to read). It was necessary to budget time for writing because it was part of my degree program, but I didn’t have the same level of eustress to manage reading. As such, I mentally converted reading time into an “Independent Study.” Every class that I enrolled within I found a book to correlate with it. For example, when I took a non-fiction workshop, I read Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. With this philosophy, I made reading a priority, thus furthering my inability to separate reading from writing.

But ugh.. sometimes reading isn’t pleasurable, which is fair, especially if you were forced to read texts like the Scarlet Letter in high school. Writing and reading; however, are like muscles. They need to be exercised and diving into extreme sports, like 1000 pages of The Stand by Steven King, can cause serious brain fatigue. Ease into it, grasshopper!  If you aren’t swallowing novels like they’re tic tacs, that’s ok. There are some amazing short stories out there, like Donald Barthelme’s “The School.” They can give you the same satisfaction as reading novels. There’s a yearly anthology that I love called The Best American Short Stories, which has some of our best contemporary authors compiled together just for you! A couple of pages a day can introduce you to great writers.

Now that I have addressed the reasons non-reading writers don’t want to read during their writing journey, here’s three reasons why I think you should:

Passion is hard to keep consistent when you’re writing. My first official novel took 2 years to complete from start to finish. It took J.R.R. Tolken twelve years to write The Lord of the Rings. If you are curious about other turtle paced writers check out this article: 7 Novels That Took Their Authors Years To Write (To Make You Feel Better About Not Finishing NaNoWriMo). Reading keeps you invested in the project even after your writing bug has disappeared. Additionally, it shows you that if books like those listed on the worst books can get published, it means your book can get published, too! <~ although hopefully it doesn’t show up on the worst books list.

Like I’ve said before, I’m a big time book pusher. When I’m talking about my book, I’m also pushing other books. “Oh you liked mine? Check out this one next!” This allows me to move beyond my one and done book and be a wealth of information for my readers, which keeps them coming back! It lets them see that I am just like them! I care about my readers, and I know they’ll appreciate my recommendations. Bonus points if they have recommendations for me! In the independent book selling market, this level of connection with readers is crucial.

I learned a lot from my creative writing classes, but none of the education really sunk in until I saw it in practical application. Reading immerses you into various techniques and styles, allowing you as a writer to better develop your own. By reading books, I learned about flow of ideas, how better it is to show vs. tell, and where to insert physical description. I also learned to reflect on my responses to what I was reading and utilize these to project the same responses for my audience. As such, reading has made me a better writer. Beta reading has made me an even better writer.

At the end of the day, if you’re a writer who doesn’t like to read, you probably didn’t read this post (totally ok; it kind of lost my attention at the end as well). If you did, you just read like 1000+ words, so you can now say you’re a reader. Kudos!

Am I saying that you have to be reader to write, nope, but I am saying that if you want to be a GREAT, you should.

If you have any recommendations of books that turned you from a non-reader into a reader, please share them in the comments. I’d love to see what books brought others to the reader side.