Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Any author worth their salt will tell you that to be a great writer you must also be a varied and voracious reader. In fact, here’s one doing exactly that.
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
– Stephen King
It’s great advice, but it’s also not specific enough. Writers need to be doing more than just reading, they need to be reading something specific. In this article, I’ll be exploring what that is, why it’s the case, and why this advice is so vital to authors.
Writers are readers
Writing enjoyable, engaging prose is an art, and like any artistic talent, its foundations are in a study of what has gone before. If you’ve taken creative writing classes or joined a writing group, this study will be obvious, but even if you haven’t, it’s still there.Reading is an essential part of writing.Click To Tweet
Authors have been studying their craft since they were children, developing their understanding of language and how it can be used to captivate a reader. Every book they’ve read has offered a window on this art – a study of what works and what doesn’t. The ideas in writing help us develop philosophically, but the form of that writing helps to develop our appreciation and understanding of the written word.
Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
– Sir Richard Steele
This is something that the majority of writers already appreciate. Most can name a few books that have inspired them, or even the single book that made them went to be an author. ‘Writers must be readers’ is a popular way of putting it, and it’s accurate, but it’s also not enough. Because while most authors would agree that reading is essential to good writing, too many think that’s the whole story.
Reading your genre
What gets lost in this truism is that writers shouldn’t just be reading; they should be reading their genre. That’s not to say that writers should only read the genre in which they’re writing – that encourages habits to compound into clichés and cuts off the inspiration that powers true creativity – but that they should have a firm, constantly updated understanding of the artistic environment to which they’re hoping to contribute.What we read (and watch) shapes what we write (even if we’d rather it didn’t).Click To Tweet
Reading helps writing because it teaches craft on a conscious and subconscious level. It demonstrates myriad, intertwining aspects of good writing in their natural habitat, but it also gives us a history lesson, even if we’re not aware it’s happening. Authors turn away from old, tired methodology, they reject overplayed and outdated themes, they cater to new or newly recognized audiences, and they take us with them.
Reading our chosen genre does all this, but it focuses on the type of fiction we’re trying to write. Crime fiction will teach you to write better crime fiction, fantasy better fantasy, and romance better romance. Again, your self-education should take in other genres, but with the genre you want to write as a foundation. What we read is replicated in what we write, whether it’s purposeful or not. The lessons of our consumption are so effective that they shape our creation, even when we wish they wouldn’t.
It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it
– Commonly attributed to Oscar Wilde
Reading your genre turns everything that’s gone before into a shared language between you and your readers. You can extemporize within that language, even speak it in a new way, but you have to know it first. There are unique lessons to learn in this way, and yet many, many authors ignore them. Why is that?
Why authors don’t read the genres they write
There are many reasons authors don’t read the genres they write. Often, it’s because they think they’ve already got a grip on it – they read the classics of that genre and they’re ready to do something new. It’s an admirable impulse, but it completely ignores the reader, the market, and the artistic landscape.
What this type of author forgets is that the reader they hope to attract is familiar with their genre of choice. The audience hasn’t read the classics and had their fill – they’re reading contemporary writing as its released, and their expectations and understanding are evolving as a result.
This can have an impact both on content and on form. Romance writing, for example, has a complex relationship with attitudes to gender and sexuality, and these are addressed and incorporated into good romance writing in different ways. It doesn’t take long for a romance author to be left in the dust by shifting trends.
Even more deadly is poetry, where expectations of form and delivery evolve quickly, with one new innovation birthing another. Poets who don’t read contemporary poetry often produce work that reads as if it should be in a historical anthology, archaic in their delivery and unaware of important works that have already nailed what they’re trying to accomplish.If you want to write a specific genre, you need to read a lot of it.Click To Tweet
Another reason authors don’t read their genre is that they’re watching it. Many authors watch a lot of action movies and decide that, while they don’t have the budget to make one of their own, they can write an action story. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning from another medium, and passion is passion, but choosing writing as a fallback medium isn’t a step on the path to doing it well.
Action writing is famously difficult, and approaching the task with a visual sensibility makes it even harder, because that’s not what a reader needs. Watching a genre can tell you a lot about that type of story, but it’s an inadequate education in form (and can even ingrain unhelpful techniques).Visual media can teach authors unhelpful techniques.Click To Tweet
Television and movies also cost more, which means they take fewer chances and address a wider audience. It’s for this reason that, in terms of plot, literature tends to experiment much more frequently. You can watch your genre, come up with an inspired idea that hasn’t yet been tried, and completely miss that fact that a book from five years ago already did it, and that your potential readership needs a new twist. This isn’t lack of creativity; the inspiration was sincere, it’s just that the work born out of it isn’t innovative when imported to a different, more experimental medium.
In a similar position are those writers who don’t really see themselves as ‘writers’. Instead, they’re people with something to say who see writing as the best way of reaching an audience. Again, this isn’t ‘wrong’ – not everyone is a wordsmith, and not every great work is great because of its craft. Even here, though, the message can be improved by cultivating an understanding of the environment into which it’s being released.
Readers are engaged in a constant study of themes and genre. It’s possible that you can barge into their classroom and tell them something they don’t already know, but it’s far more likely that you’ll be repeating something decades-old that no-one is discussing anymore because they already reached a consensus.
This is actually a huge problem for authors who don’t read their genre – the illusion that a settled topic is an unexplored topic, or that a passé idea is an untapped goldmine. Most writers have had the embarrassing experience of coming up with an amazing idea and then realizing it’s already been done, but reading your genre is the difference between knowing it needs updating and publishing it to absolutely no attention.
A final reason that authors don’t read their genre is that they don’t consider it their genre – maybe they usually write a different type of story, or they don’t consider themselves to be a fixed-genre writer. This is admirable, but mostly because it’s a lot of work, and part of that work is becoming familiar with the genre you’ve chosen, even if it’s only for one story.
Those are just some of the reasons that you should be reading your genre, but it’s still something that can seem like a tall order. If you’re an author who wants to read their genre, where can you start?
How to read your genre
In any genre, canonical texts will quickly emerge. These are the books that the majority of fans agree define their genre – the big names that begin an informed discussion. The first step is to catch up with these, since they’re the basis of discussion. If possible, you should also look into some outliers – the kinds of books that are too strange to make it in the mainstream, but which die-hard fans absolutely rave about. These outlier books often inspire new works that take their oddness in a more populist direction, and you can get years ahead of the popular discourse by going straight to the source.
You can supplement this reading by checking out articles, reviews, and even books on the genre. They’re not a replacement for the thing itself, but they will help you get more out of it and give you a store of ancillary knowledge.
Beyond that, it’s important to read contemporary examples of your genre. This is more like fishing, because there’ll be less consensus of quality (or a less reliable consensus, in the moment), but it’s the only way to stay current and really develop your skills. This is especially important for short fiction and poetry, where both form and content have a long history and an educated, expectant readership.
Happily, you can learn just as much from another author’s failure as you can from success, so it’s incredibly rare that you’ll read something from your chosen genre that doesn’t improve your craft in one way or another.
Your genre awaits
At the end of the day, reading your genre is an effort to engage with your readership. The more you can do to understand the artistic environment in which they exist, the better, because it’ll all be paid back down the line. Assume you can jump into a genre and the disdain you’re showing your readers will be returned in their reaction, but take a while to grasp the topography, to learn why the odd rituals and strange trends began in the first place, even if you disagree with them, and you’ll attract people who are ready to love your writing.
For more advice on this topic, check out The Thing You Need To Know Before You Write In A New Genre, or comment below to let me know what you think about genre and whether an author really needs to research a genre to write in it.