6 tips to boost your writing by reading
6 simple tips to prove that losing yourself in a good book can help you become a better writer.
The value of reading
For some of us, writing is a calling, for some it is a need. For others it is a gift. Some writers write for adults, some for children; some write horror, some write romance.
But all writers – especially of fiction – are driven by one thing: a love of stories. Telling stories, creating stories, writing stories.
And that love came from somewhere. It came from reading.
Think about seven-year-old you. What stories did you like? Who was your favourite author? Did you like fantasy, adventure, or mystery?
My sister and I both loved stories by Enid Blyton. She adored The Faraway Tree collection, I devoured Malory Towers – which possibly explains my current obsession with Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series.
Another of my childhood favourites was Mr Majeika, and I am reliving the fun of it, all over again, with my own daughter.
And it was from books like this that I learned early hints of writing craft. While I didn’t know the phrase ‘flawed hero’, I would have been able to recognise the traits in Mr Majeika himself (making Hamish Bigmore the rather perfect antagonist).
“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it." - William Faulkner
Why is reading important?
In a writer’s forum I visited recently, a question was posted by an aspiring writer, asking how much they should read. Most responses championed the importance of reading – and reading widely. One response, however, stuck with me in a really rather rankling way. (You’re welcome for that alliteration, by the way.)
The respondent claimed that the two concepts of writing and reading were being confused. You are a writer, not a reader, they said. Writing is a job, reading is procrastination, they continued. The best way to get better at writing, is to write, they said.
Well, yes, to be fair, that last one is correct. And I imagine the best way to get better at surgery is to practise surgery – but we hope they’ve read a book or two along the way. (Preferably not Mr Majeika.)
But I feel they have missed the point that Stephen King puts so well in his memoir and writing craft book, On Writing:
“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Enough said. Let’s get cracking with our 6 tips to boost your writing through reading.
1. Read for inspiration
Writing involves a lot of giving. Formulating the ideas in your head and putting them out there for others to read. It can be quite a draining process.
But what happens when the well of ideas runs dry? You need to refill it from somewhere.
Now, granted, there are many ways to do that. Observing people in their lives, their interactions with each other, their habits, their mannerisms, their dialogue; watching TV and movies to see new storylines, to learn about scenes, plot lines and character arcs; living life yourself, having your own new experiences and not just observing others doing the living.
But right in that mix we should also have reading. And reading anything. Don’t assume that you should just focus on reading fiction in your chosen genre (more on that later).
Shonda Rhimes – creator of TV genius such as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal – scours the newspaper from front to back to look for interesting stories, people and events that might provide inspiration for her own writing.
In the words of mystery and crime writer Jeffery Deaver: “I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block”.
So, take inspiration from books. Look for new and interesting ideas – not to copy, obviously – but to get your own creative flow going.
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." - Stephen King
2. Read to understand your genre
What genre do you write in? Presumably, if you are visiting this site, your main focus is on writing for children or young adults, but what genre? Do you write mysteries? Fantasies?
Were you a childhood fan of R. L. Stine and you now write horror stories for kids, or do you lean more towards the gothic? Are they adventures, thrillers, or futuristic dystopian stories? Historical fiction, myth or legend?
Whatever your genre, do you know it well? Do you know how plot and pace work in a crime thriller compared with a coming-of-age romance? How is language used differently across genres, not just in terms of dialogue but also vocabulary, syntax and grammar.
None of us should aim to follow a set of rules in our writing. We aren’t aiming for formulaic replicas of the stories that already exist, but we need to think about our readers.
Fans of horror stories will expect certain character archetypes, genre conventions, and tropes (Note: not clichés, caricatures, and stereotypes) in your own horror story. The same is true for fans of all different genres. The readers know what they like, and they will be looking for the same from you.
Understanding the conventions of your genre will make your writing stronger while also satisfying your very discerning readers.
3. Read to understand other genres
“Reading to understand other genres?” I hear you cry. “You’ve just been telling me to read and understand my own genre!”
You’re right, but bear with me here. Yes, absolutely, reading within your genre is imperative for understanding conventions and reader expectations, but reading outside your genre can help you add a little originality to your work.
Maybe you want to combine genres, and you’re writing a historical/crime/mystery novel (ah, back to Murder Most Unladylike). Perhaps you are looking to add some gothic elements to your novel and delving into some horror would give you access to imagery and symbolism that would enhance your own writing.
If we only stick to reading within our own genre, we miss out on new exciting ways of thinking, and we might only read the same authors over and over again. Reading out of genre opens our minds to creativity and innovation.
Yes, there are genre conventions that we should heed, especially for the sake of our readers. But very often, the best writers are those who bend, break or subvert convention in favour of originality and experimentation.
4. Read to hone your skills
Let’s leave genre aside for now. What skills would you say we need as writers?
Think, first, about the macro level skills: plot, pace, characterisation, world building, and authorial voice, among others.
"The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading..." - Samuel Johnson
How can you refine your own plotting technique? Look to examples of excellent plotting already out there. Read The Secret of Birds and Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk, The Hatmakers by Tamzin Merchant.
For examples of pace, look to Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
Explore characterisation and authorial voice in the novels of Lucy Strange, and world building through Neil Gaiman and Veronica Roth.
And what about the micro level skills, such as sentence structure, syntax, grammar and punctuation?
Dialogue is also a vital element to study, not only in terms of effective and realistic language, rhythm and pace, but also in terms of punctuation, dialogue tags and action beats.
And absolutely don’t forget vocabulary, imagery and symbolism (for which I unreservedly recommend the novels of Lucy Strange).
But it isn’t just looking for good examples of these skills that helps us become better writers. Pick up on what doesn’t work in the books you read. If you feel a character is two-dimensional, consider why that is and don’t make the same mistake in your own writing. If dialogue is stilted and unrealistic, work out why that may be the case and focus on avoiding that in your own dialogue.
"...there's no such thing as writer's block; the problem is idea block." - Jeffery Deaver
Especially in children’s books, it’s easy to find examples of outdated language, or evidence that the author has tried too hard to use slang, hoping to appeal to a younger audience. Most of the time this merely results in sounding patronising, and is best avoided.
Reading widely will put you in the shoes of the reader, allowing you to experience the story as they would, identifying the things that may frustrate them or trip them up.
5. Read to understand the market
Another valuable reason to read widely is to understand the publishing market. Be specific to the market you are targeting. If you are writing a children’s book, know what gets published and what is successful in that market.
For this reason, make sure you are reading current books. What has been published in the last 12 months? What genres do these books fall into? This will give you a clear indication of what children have been reading over the past year, but also what publishers have been willing to take on in terms of quality, plot, character, book length, and so on.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that you shouldn't be trying to replicate what you see in the market. If, for example, you see a lot of mystery stories published in the last twelve months, that may well mean that the market for mystery books is already crowded and publishers will be looking for something new and original.
A good tip for staying up to date with recent releases is to have a look at bookstores such as Waterstones, who list books of the month on their website. You could also check out Amazon's Next 90 Days feature which will show you which books have release dates within the coming months.
Also pay attention to book award nominations for prizes such as the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals, the Blue Peter book awards and the Jhalak Prize (which now features a children's and YA prize in addition to its traditional prize for adult fiction). These give you an insight into the stand out books and authors in the market right now.
6. Read for pleasure
But perhaps our most basic reason for reading should just be pleasure. Because we love stories. Because we love to lose ourselves in fantasy lands and chilling tales. Because we want to meet new characters and become those characters in our imaginations. Because the thrill of suspense is the reason we want to write.
And that is reason enough.
Follow our Book of the Month book reviews for more great ideas on who or what to read next.