Good Writers Read – It’s Part Of Why They Are Good Writers

by Anne Wayman

writers need to readNot too long ago I was shopping for office supplies in a retail store near me. I like supporting local businesses when I can. I got into a conversation with a clerk. He was young, obviously bright, helpful and somehow I mentioned that I am a freelance writer.

He lit up and told me he too wanted to write. I asked him what he liked to read. Looking a bit startled he said he really didn’t like to read much.

I was equally startled and said something flip suggesting he try reading. Then I said “I don’t know a single successful writer who doesn’t also love to read.”

I can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t read. I read almost anything we find in print, including, if I’m stuck, the backs of milk cartons.

I love mysteries and thrillers. I devour non-fiction on everything from music theory to quantum physics. I read about reading and I read about writing.


I love a good bookstore and am sad we have so few of them any more – I mean physical bookstores. I also love a good newsstand and am fortunate to live within striking distance of the oldest and probably best one in the state.

I check out six or seven books from the library every week, sometimes more.

I start way more books than I finish, for as I’ve gotten older I have less tolerance for characters I don’t care about or information presented in ways that talk down to me or leave me totally confused. But I read.

My kids, now adults, also read because I set an example and because reading was the only thing I ignored after lights out.

Reading informs writing. I suspect I’ve learned way more by example than I ever have from a teacher or a how-to book.

I know books and writing are changing. But my 18-year-old granddaughter who loves gaming, haunts Comic Con and studies game design with an eye toward learning how to write the backgrounds and design the costumes for adventure games is also a voracious reader.

While she laughs at my awkward texting, and knows way more about social media than I even want to know, she reads.

I suspect she will be successful in gaming and in the gaming industry partly, or maybe even mostly, because she also reads well and deeply.

Reading and writing are changing, but they aren’t going away. My hunch is if we came back in 500 words we’d find the creators of that time also reading even if we barely recognized the form.

How much reading do you do?

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Ron's Copy-e-writing Blog April 16, 2012 at 4:55 am

Very strangely, I am one of the writers who read very less often, although I should read more often. But as early rock singers used to believe, too much of following others’ works might cramp your own style!
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annew April 16, 2012 at 9:27 am

Ron, I think there’s a huge difference between reading widely and following other writers to emulate them…

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Valerie Bolden-Barrett April 3, 2012 at 9:51 am

I couldn’t agree more, Anne. I tell would-be writers I meet to read anything and as often as possible. Two of the words I first recognized on a page were “Simon” and (&) “Schuster,” which used to print all those Little Golden Books I owned. I ended up working for the publisher. I didn’t connect reading with becoming a good writer until I started writing professionally. But I know that, along with a former jounalist boss and an incredible copyeditor, reading has made me a better writer more than any other single thing I’ve learned.
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annew April 4, 2012 at 7:35 am

I remember the Little Golden Books although I couldn’t have told you then, or now, who published them.

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Elizabeth West April 3, 2012 at 9:13 am

I’ve been reading ever since I can remember. I was reading at a twelfth-grade level in the second grade, and so spent a huge amount of my childhood in the tiny library of my hometown. Everywhere I’ve lived, one of the first things I’ve done has been to get a library card, even if the closest facility was out of county and I had to pay a fee.

Lately I’ve not been reading as much as I would like. Too much time on the internet, job hunting and also not as much writing as I would like. Last year I worked so much I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read anything. I would check books out and return them unread. This year, I’d like to schedule myself to get at least a little reading in each day. :)
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Amelia Ramstead April 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Crazy reader in the house here!! I’m never so happy as when I’m curled up in bed with a good book. As much as I adore physical books (as evidenced by my tendency to leave them everywhere), I am currently in love with my Kindle app on my phone since I can pull it out everywhere I go. My son is finally turning into a reader and my three-year-old daughter thinks the worst punishment ever is not getting her bedtime story. I suspect she is on the fast track to becoming a reader as well. I was the kid who constantly had a book at the breakfast table and if I couldn’t find a book, I read the ingredients on the cereal box. Fiction, nonfiction… I’m not picky!
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annew April 2, 2012 at 5:59 am

Best reason in the world I can think of for a smart phone… or maybe I’ll leave it behind and take a kindle or just a book.

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jorge kafkazar March 31, 2012 at 4:44 pm

My dad never took me to a baseball game. Ever. Nor a football game. Nor basketball. His idea of fun was to go to used bookstores and buy crates full of books. His den at home had bookshelves on all four walls. My mother read to me often and my sister taught me before I was six.

I, too, would be aghast that someone “wants to be a writer” WHO NEVER READS. Would they aspire to play quarterback for Dallas without ever playing football? Of course not. These people don’t really want to be writers; they merely want to have written, to pass around a book bearing a tweedy-smirky picture of themselves on the back. I’ll be happy to oblige them for $100 if they’ll be careful not to let anyone open the book…”Lorem ipsum dolor…”

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annew April 2, 2012 at 5:56 am

Lol, Jorge – yes, there are lots of people who want to have written a book… and a prize to make sure no one opens those is a great idea.

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Bill Swan March 31, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Another thing reading and writing have in common is that what we read has some relevance in what we end up writing.

I love older books and general history, which landed me volunteer work in a library, which in turn landed me running the communications aspect of a non-profit when it first got started.

I also love local news and what goes on around towns. This led to my reporting for local weekly newspapers as a “stringer” (do they even use that word anymore?)
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annew April 2, 2012 at 5:54 am

Good points, Bill – thanks.

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Gamin March 30, 2012 at 11:54 pm

I love reading. I can spend hours on a second-hand bookstore and come out with different titles. I really do believe successful writers are voracious readers. I have developed my writing skills mostly because I read a lot of books and watch a lot of television shows. They helped me improve my sentence structures, learn new terms, and improved my style.
I don’t think I’ll stop reading.
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annew April 2, 2012 at 5:51 am

Yes, second-hand bookstores are wonderful places – many of them are anyway.

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Charlotte Rains Dixon March 30, 2012 at 10:05 am

Oh don’t get me started on this. I recently worked with a client for a good while on her book and couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t making as much progress as I’d hoped. Then she confessed to me that she didn’t read. That she hated it. Honestly, I’m not sure I would have taken her on as a client if I’d known this going in. I think its impossible to be a good writer without an avid reading habit–that’s why most of us wanted to become writers in the first place!
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annew March 30, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Come to think of it, Charlotte, I’ve had clients who don’t read and they are horrid to work with because they won’t read the drafts I send them much.

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Cathy Miller March 30, 2012 at 7:31 am

Reading is my #1 form of entertainment. I cannot imagine NOT reading. I am old school and still start my day with coffee and a newspaper. I know I will sorely miss the day when (and I wish I could say IF) newspapers no longer exist.
I head to bed an hour or two before I actually turn out the light so I can read. Murder mysteries are my favorite, but will read almost anything that catches my interest. I love good poetry and Thoughts for the day type writing. Love, love, love reading.
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annew March 30, 2012 at 10:02 am

I no longer read newspapers except once in a great while… do start with coffee and a bit of Zen reading. I collect my news via internet radio these days… and I read myself to sleep every night and often wake up in the middle of the night to more reading… usually mysteries.

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Ali | Writers Blog March 30, 2012 at 12:08 am

I would like to add a small point:
Being a freelance copywriter, I also love reading but recently I learned that I’m reading stuff – like fiction, poetry- which I don’t write myself. Fair enough, any type of reading help,s but if you spend more time reading the same or similar stuff you write , that’ll make you a much better write n a shorter time.
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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:54 am

Do you mean you read more copy? I can see how that might work… but I also want to read widely.

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AizaMay March 29, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Well actually, I read a lot of books and I must admit that it can be a big help in making me a good writer and enrich my vocabulary…
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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:53 am

Vocabulary is only part of it as I’m sure you agree.

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Sharon Hurley Hall March 29, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I read voraciously – and so does my daughter – spending time reading when she should be doing something else is the only thing I overlook. :)
“I start way more books than I finish…” – this really resonated with me, because I’ve found the same.
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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:51 am

Sometimes I think you and I are twins separated at birth Sharon

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corinne March 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I completely agree with this! I find when I’m feeling like my writing has become almost robotic, I start to read more. Not to copy someone else’s style, but just to get new words and ideas flowing. It always works.
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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:49 am

Isn’t that the truth, Corinne!

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Vanna March 29, 2012 at 1:48 pm

I totally agree! But I wish I could read more. I have three little kids but I’ve given in to audio books lately. Not the same but some readers are better than others. Luckily there are some for free on youtube =)
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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:21 am

My son loves audio books… I’m still resisting them a bit. And when my 3 kids were little I certainly didn’t read nearly as much as I’m able to now! They do grow up! I promise.

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Paul Lessley March 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Nice post Anne!

When I was but a wee lad, I stubbornly refused to read because I found it boring, not that I actually knew what I was talking about. I could read and despise book reports assigned by my teacher but that was the extent of my enthusiasm.

Eventually, my father grounded me (to my room) until I finished “Call of the Wild” by Jack London. At first I was resentful, there wasn’t even a book report on this stupid book.

Not having a choice, however, I dove in and did what I had to do. The next thing I knew I was enthralled by the story. I creamed the book in two days. Even more surprising, I knew there were other books by this author and I wanted to read them.

Some 30 years later I still have an affinity for reading, and I still read every book by an author I like, and then I go find another author I like, repeat.

I sincerely believe my love of reading is what has driven my success at freelance writing. Reading and writing are one in the same in my book.

Thanks Dad!

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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:20 am

Great story, Paul. I was sent to private school for my 6th grade year and wasn’t at all popular because I became a real tattle-tale. Our class room had a wall of books and one day in sort of desperate loneliness I picked out a book – wish I knew the title – it was a wild romance of some sort – perfect for a 6th grade girl. Have been hooked ever since.

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Ellen March 29, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Not as much as I should, but I’m trying to get into it more. I try to take some time each day at lunch to read – it’s a great, relaxing break from the office. Anne, if you’re ever stuck for a column idea, you could always publish “Anne’s favourite reads” (and yes, I used the Canadian spelling there! :))
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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:18 am

Not sure there’s an amount we ‘should’ read. I find some books I can knock off in an evening or two while others take days, weeks and even months. I’d have trouble figuring out what my favorite reads are, but I do review some books here.http://www.aboutfreelancewriting.com/reviews/

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WritersWritingWords (Eleni) March 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm

I once read the yellow pages, for want of *something* written to lay my eyes upon!
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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:17 am

lol, I’ve spent some time with the yellow pages come to think of it.

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LeeAnn March 29, 2012 at 11:24 am

Definitely must read in order to write! I am always in the middle of 3 or 4 books at any given time. A novel, a memoir, another novel, non-fiction something or other. Then, of course, there’s the online reading to fill in the gaps.

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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:15 am

I don’t know how many books are scattered on my bed at the moment… some will go back to the library today.

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Nida Sea March 29, 2012 at 11:17 am

I try to read at least two fantasy/sci-fi novels a month. That’s probably not enough, and I would like to read more of these genres, but I’m either reading my school text books, or something on Yahoo! front page. Great post, Anne!

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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:15 am

Reading on the ‘net counts… mostly.

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Michael A. Lewis March 29, 2012 at 11:14 am

I write because I read. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write, or read.

My father used to say, “What do you mean there’s nothing to do? There’s a whole bookshelf full of books you haven’t read yet!”

I entered graduate school at age 42 (Thanks, Douglas) after three years of work documenting the Exxon Valdez oil spill, because I asked myself, “What do I most enjoy doing?” My answer was, “Reading and writing.” So I embarked on a course that consisted of four years of intense reading and writing, culminating in a PhD in anthropology.

Now I read and write for myself. I publish to keep the manuscripts from piling up on my desk and in my computer. I write, not to make a living, but because the words from my reading overflow my brain pan and spill out on to the page.
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annew March 30, 2012 at 9:14 am

Do we write because we read Michael? I too can’t remember when I didn’t read and write and I have absolutely no idea which came first! I’ve often thought I’d like to come back as a scholar who got paid to read and write… I’ve come close without the scholar part.

Truly enjoyed looking at your sites and sampling some of your thinking.

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