Read to write better? Yes. And no.

reading-a-book“If you want to write better, you need to read more.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that phrase since I started writing (properly) nearly four years ago. And I heard it again recently, hence this post.

Surely it’s a sound piece of advice, you might think. Writers need to be readers, they need to read a lot and they need to read widely. What kind of an idiot would argue with that? Well, as it happens, I’m that kind of idiot.

Let me explain. I believe broad statements about ‘reading more’ are actually misleading. It’s not about how much you read. Or how widely. You could read vast quantities of fantastic, beautifully crafted, resonant, artful fiction and still see no discernible impact on your own craft. Why? Because the key is about how you read. Unless you read deeply, unless you give the words your time and concentration, then you may as well be reading a restaurant menu.

Think of it this way. Is listening to songs on the radio, in the background, while you are driving the car or doing your ironing the best way to improve your song writing? Or do you need to put your headphones on, be still, listen to the music and pick it apart to see how it works, even if that undermines the magic a little?

I reckon there are at least four levels of reading and only one of these will significantly improve a writer’s craft. Here they are:

One – Quick skim reading: Base camp reading. Blitz reading. The kind of reading necessary for emails which are mildly diverting, social media posts, stuff you get in white envelopes with little plastic window, that butter splattered article in a Sunday supplement you finally read on a Wednesday just before you put it in the recycling box.

Two – Easy reading: The equivalent of easy listening – the soft rock, light jazz, New Age version of reading. It’s airport books and lying on a beach reading. It’s a cheap thriller on a train reading. It’s plot, simplicity, pace. You want to grasp it quickly and move on. It’s no foreplay and straight to the shagging kind of reading.

Three – Deep and Slow reading: Okay, I know this sounds a bit, well, sexual, but bear with me. Some novels demand this type of reading, the best short stories certainly do. With deeper reading you are trying to become immersed, to savour, to discover intricacy and subtlety. This requires time, a lack of distraction, some effort on behalf of you, the reader. It’s also, for me, the best type of reading when you feel you are deep into the world of the book, but also able to recognise the quality of the craft. It’s vital to read like this as much as possible, because not only are you feeling inspired and enjoying the process, but you are also picking up, often subconsciously, things that will inform and improve your own work.

Four – Scalpel and latex gloves reading: The reader as surgeon, up to your elbows in the heart and liver and lungs of the thing, seeing how the innards work and whether there are any flaws you can excise. You question and analyse everything. When a character puts on a record, what does that record say about them? When they chose a passage to read from a book, is it a metaphor for something? Like a surgeon, you are aware that there is a living, complex being on the table that you are hacking about with, but you have to keep cutting in order to understand it completely. It is not the most enjoyable type of reading and sometimes it kills the patient stone dead. But sometimes, you have to do this heavy critical analysis in order to learn.

So, get reading. Just remember, if you want to learn to write better, you probably need to read deeper.