Writers Need to Read


January, 2017


Writers need to read. You’ve probably heard that before. It’s true. You may believe it, or profess to believe it, but have you taken it to heart?

There is a saying, often worded differently, sometimes attributed to other people, but in its original form (as far as my research can tell) it goes: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow, 1966. In the field of psychology, this is called “Maslow’s Hammer” or the “Golden Hammer”, and is sometimes referred to as “The Law of the Instrument.”

Writers use tools. I’m not talking about pencils, pens, computers, etc. I’m referring to literary tools, linguistic tools. If, as a writer, your only literary tool is a hammer, then every story you write will sound like a nail. That statement, by-the-way, is a literary tool called a metaphor.

I read a lot. That is to say, I spend a great deal of time reading. I’m a slow reader, so it doesn’t equate to a lengthy “Have Read” list. It does mean I’ve spent a lot of time studying how other authors use literary tools. I was in my late forties before I began writing my first novel, but I fell in love with reading in my late teens. I write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Most of the novels I have read have been Science Fiction, followed closely by Fantasy. I have learned most of what I know about writing Science Fiction and Fantasy from these works. There is more to writing than understanding the mechanics of your genre. Beyond that, you need to know how to craft a story. For example, in a good Science Fiction novel, there will be other elements, such as drama, suspense, romance, intrigue, struggle, misdirection, and more. If you don’t handle these sub-elements well, the overall story falls short.

I’ve read historical fiction, and seen how writers fit a fictional story around real events or real places. If you understand now to do this, then you will be better at fitting your purely fictional story around fiction events and fictional places.

I’ve read romance, and seen how writers handle people falling in love, falling out of love, behaving toward each other while in love, and how they work those things into the story. These literary tools will make your story better.

I’ve read suspense-thrillers, and seen how writers lead a reader down a path to a shocking surprise that they never saw coming. If you plan to surprise your readers, this is a tool you need to know how to use.

I’ve read paranormal stories, and seen how writers make completely fantastical elements seem real. What better tool could a fiction writer have?

I could go on, but I hope you see my point. If you are a writer, you need to read, and not just your own chosen genre. Open your mind to other things. Every genre has something to teach you about your own.