Detonation #8: If You’re Gonna Write, You Gotta Read

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re on the right side of the issue. For everyone else, shut up, I don’t care. I’m taking no prisoners because there is no grey area. Let me be perfectly clear:

It is immoral to write but not read.

That’s right, children. It doesn’t matter if you are dyslexic, or struggle with ADHD, or have a very busy life. Your excuses bore me. If you have the ability to write, you have the ability and the moral obligation to read.

But let’s back up and first establish what I would consider reading. Perhaps not an exhaustive list but you get the gist.

Books

Comics

Audiobooks

Articles

Essays

Short stories

Poems (I guess)

And perhaps more importantly, what does NOT qualify as reading:

Social media

Headlines

Memes

Podcasts

Buying books

Sniffing books

Posting pics of books to your insta

Talking about how many books are in your TBR pile

Rhapsodizing about how much you loooooove books

Watching the movie (Seriously, this didn’t work in middle school, why would it work now?)

Why is it so important to read if you aspire to write? Why is writing without giving equal time to reading a sign of corrupted character, anti-intellectualism, and a weak narrow mind?

Fairness. Obviously if you are writing with the expectation that others will read your work, it’s rather selfish not to devote attention to the work of others.

Empathy. If you are not regularly taking in narratives that do not originate with you, how are you to craft a story that will connect with others? How are you yourself to connect with others?

Better Building Blocks. Do yourself a favour an unsubscribe to that fucking word of the day email. There is no better vocabulary builder than a robust reading practice. There are so many words to play with and if you never read anyone else’s, you’ll be stuck with your boring starter set forever.

Craftsmanship. It’s been said the way to learn how to write is to write. And yes that’s part of it, but like any other craft, honing it means apprenticing yourself to those more knowledgeable. Study how an author you admire turns a phrase, describes setting, or adds flesh to a character’s bones. Self-taught won’t teach much.

All right, Octoclot, you’re thinking, you may talk the talk but are those tentacles walking the walk? So let me tell you, I was a delayed reader, unable to read fluently at grade level until I was almost nine years old, but once it clicked, it unleashed a monster. I demolished books like it was my job and I didn’t slow down until my thirties when I started to write. The more I wrote, the less I read, and my writing reflected that. It lost depth and breadth. It lost sparkle and imagination and universality. It became familiar and predictable. It didn’t take long to notice a direct relationship between the quality of my writing and the amount of time spent reading.

I’m also a bookseller, so reading a lot and reading broadly is critical to doing my job well. All told, I read about 30-50 books a year, and spend at least an hour a day reading online articles and essays. A good long form journalism piece is one of my fav ways to pass a lunch hour. By almost any metric, I read a lot. This isn’t bragging, but disclosure for the purposes of credibility. You don’t have to read as much as me, and possibly you read more, but trust me when I say the act of purposeful reading is essential to all writers.

You don’t have to read fast. You don’t have to read War & Peace (I haven’t). But a good rule of thumb is to spend at least as much time reading as you do writing. Ideally more. Read in long stretches, read in tiny bites, read literature, read trash, read poetry, read something translated. Do it every day. Cultivate in yourself a love of reading so passionate that if someone were to ask you to give up one or the other, you wouldn’t have to think twice. I promise it’ll make you a better writer and a probably a better person.

A writer writes. A maxim meant to shore up the confidence of those suffering from imposter syndrome, tentative to claim the title of ‘writer’. While the sentiment is well meaning, it’s not quite complete. Here’s the secret half of what a writer does: a writer reads.