You Are What You Read

In order to be a writer, you must read. That’s a piece of advice you’ve probably heard countless times, and it’s worth repeating. But what do you read? Only books similar to what you want to write? Or do you read everything under the sun?

My theory is that you must read a lot of different things in order to get a sense of different styles and types of writing. Read bad writing, good writing, poetry, plays, newspaper articles, blogs, whatever you can. Read mysteries and Westerns and romances and sci-fi and thrillers and classics.

But, oddly enough, what you read is what you write. If all you read is Proust, your writing will reflect that. You will unconsciously imitate the types of writing you read most. In some ways, that’s good, but in other ways, it might not be so good.

For instance, lately I’m reading a lot of news articles, and I feel as though my fiction writing is becoming more dry and journalistic as a result of that, so I need to get back into reading more fiction!

A similar thing happens when I write (well, used to write) poetry. If I read a lot of good poetry, like A.R. Ammons and Elizabeth Bishop, my poetry turned out better. Conversely, if I listened to a lot of pop music on the radio (all songs are poems, but not all poems are songs), my poetry didn’t turn out as good.

Perhaps my unconscious mind is more impressionable than it should be. But in any event, I still think that what you read is what you write, so be careful not to read too much of any one thing. You might end up sounding too much like a particular writer and not enough like yourself.

8 thoughts on “You Are What You Read

  1. I know exactly what you mean. I went on a William Blake binge a couple about a year ago, and found myself making dark and symbolic poems with very archaic language. I look back on it today and I just say “WTF?”.

  2. When I spend a lot of time with a single author, I feel like I’m thinking in their words and dreaming about their world, as if the literature has seeped into my brain. And then I go read something else before I get weirder. :)

  3. Robert Johnson… “You gotta go to the woodshed. You gotta get off by yourself and find your own sound… what makes you special. You gotta find your chops.”

  4. When I was a musician, one thing what was true of almost every other musician I knew was that they all listened to many more different types of music than would have been suggested by the music they made. (The only exception was a singer who sang sacred music and she was so religious that she never listened to anything else.)

    The writer I have to be the most careful of is Douglas Adams. I can look back and see things I wrote when I was reading him. Not that could write like him, even if I was trying to, but I fall into his rhythms.

  5. I know a huge number of people who don’t read very much and are indeed very intelligent and in a lot of cases well-known intellectuals. Reading uses only one part of human functionality; the eyes. There are other methods that can be used to create personality and intellect.

    Fiction does not develop anything to help judgement in day to day activities. While fiction may help you think and write fiction based materials, it does not shape a persons personality.

    I think you are way out of line here and need to do some serious thinking… not just reading and reading and reading… Use your subconscious, your ears and other methods to gain knowledge; not just reading.

    Michael J.

  6. Great post! I am in the middle of reading my first down and dirty romance novel. It’s different than anything I’ve read before but, like you said, I need to read from a variety of genres. I’m not sure which direction I’ll head next! :)

  7. Really true Maggie. My creative writing teacher in high school told me if you want to write poetry, you have to read it every day…

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