It may seem intuitive to some people, but reading is as much a part of the art of writing as the actual writing is.
Now, I’m not just talking about the need to read over what you’ve written, edit it and generally strive to turn it into stronger writing. That’s important, don’t get me wrong, and any author who’s not doing that needs to rethink their approach. And I’m not talking about reading how to books or other kinds of study. Again, very important but not where I’m going.
What I’m talking about is reading things that will inspire and shape your writing. This doesn’t mean plagiarism, which doesn’t reflect an improvement to your writing at all, but rather finding writers who tell the stories you’d want to tell, and then studying what they do. C.S. Lewis said in his preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology that he probably never wrote a book in which he did not quote from George MacDonald, but their works are markedly different on the whole. While you may never find an author that inspires you to the same extent as MacDonald did for Lewis, it’s certainly worth taking the time to try.
Reading other works can inspire you with themes and story ideas. While I’ve said before that a writer probably never runs out of story ideas, seeing how others have implemented similar ideas can shape your own in a number of ways. It might suggest things you could do to avoid overlap, point out weaknesses in the story idea you should avoid or just help you fine tune your idea by showing you what works.
Reading the works of others also helps you work out a solid idea of what good writing looks like. This applies just as much to nonfiction as to fiction. Tightly written news articles or engaging nonfiction books are just as valuable to fiction writers in helping you understand good prose as scintillating dialog and well drawn fiction characters are. Of course, the nonfiction writer benefits just as much from reading good fiction. The applications may not be as immediately obvious to you, but they’re real and noticeable.
But most of all, reading the words of others helps you understand your own writing preferences better. Keep a record of what you read, what you like about it and what you don’t like about it. Find sections you really like and break down what appeals to you about them. Find sections you feel could be better and then make them better. Don’t read passively, read actively. While stories are meant to move you and engage you, they’re at their best when you reciprocate and engage with them.
What you read is one of the biggest influences on how and what your write. If your desire is to be a skilled and able writer, you can’t help but need to take charge of what you read, study it, master it and turn it around into something that bolsters your writing. So what are you waiting for? Hit up your local library* and start reading.
*Full Disclosure: The author works for his local library, and may be biased in recommending libraries over other book suppliers.