Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Value of Reading

I often see arguments in certain writers' groups about the value of reading to a writer. Not all groups, of course, but one sees this cropping up again and again in the less selective groups.

Not only do people disagree about this, but I've seen the arguments get quite acrimonious. There is a school of thought that believes reading and writing are entirely separate activities. Not the physical mechanics of reading and writing, of course; those are obviously different, but the overall acts are viewed as two completely separate activities rather than as different modes of engaging in a single greater activity (literacy).

There will be no prizes for guessing on which side of the debate I can be found. Not that I ever get into these arguments personally. I do tend to note the passionate anti-reading advocates and make a mental note not to expect anything sensible from them. However, let us not descend to abuse.

I'll be addressing the value of reading as applied to life in general, and to the various stages of the writing process.

Life, Generally.

Why is it, do you think, that the first thing we teach a child is reading? It's a rite of passage as important, in its way, as walking, talking or toilet training. It is the final step in transforming your baby from an animal into a functioning human being.

Reading is access. Access to the world of thought, outside the child's direct sensory experience. Access to experiences beyond his reach, beyond his age level. Access to information. Access to learning. Access to communications. Long before your child has earned his way to any of the other childhood rites of passage (the pocket knife, the watch, the right to carry fire, the right to solitary transport, and so on), he has commenced his journey towards adulthood, even in those first Beatrix Potter stories.

The contra position

It may be said that a great deal of information is now available by audio/video means. This is true up to a point. But the visual and auditory media differ from printed books (whether 'dead tree' or e-ink) in this: the degree of control the watcher or listener has is far less than that he has when reading a book. Listening and watching, by their very nature, lead us into a more passive mindset than we would necessarily adopt when acually reading. This can be a dangerous, as well as a limiting, thing.

For Writers

Be that as it may, it is with writing that I'm concerned here, so let's leave that aside and concentrate on what reading does for our craft. For your convenience, I'm going to divide my observations according to the various stages of a book under construction.

Before You Start Writing

Reading contributes to your growth as a person. The more there is in your mind before you start writing, the more there is to come out of your keyboard when you do start. The prosecution rests.

Research Phase

There is no substitute, if you really want to get across a subject, for reading widely around your topic. Sure, there's no substitute for direct experience, either. But it's not always possible. Suppose you're writing horror, for example? There are things you're really not going to want to try out for yourself, even if they're possible in real life. Or suppose you want to write about life on the front line in a war? You can get a lot from talking to people who've been there, sure, but you can get even more from reading. And reading is a quick, safe way to identify related areas that you'll also want to explore. Take the warzone example - reading a few battle scenes should cue you in to the fact there are particular smells associated with gunfire, for example. Now that's something that with a little thought you can arrange to experience for yourself, along with what being in a cloud of cordite smoke does to your eyes.


Where to begin? There are not enough words in my blog to express the value of extensive reading when you are actually writing. From those thousands of books you've read throughout your life will come the elegant turns of phrase, the instinct for what will work and what won't, the skill at writing dialogue, the minor characters... I'm not talking about copying anything, you understand. I'm talking about the unconscious judgement and skills that have developed in the back of your mind over many years of reading, about the familiarity with the main genres that lets you know what fits within them and what doesn't, and above all the many times you've noticed what worked well, and what didn't.


The reader is at an advantage here, too. From the thousands of books you've read before will come the experience that will help you when you are assessing pace, flow, believability. As a reader, you know what you liked and what you didn't, and if you have ever given these things any thought, you'll probably know why. All of this helps you to assess your own completed work and decide whether you've succeeded at what you set out to do, and if not, why not.

Have I convinced you? Probably not. If you didn't see the value of extensive reading already, you probably didn't even read this far. If you agree with what I've said, then you probably already did, which leaves me wondering why I wrote this. I believed when I started that I had something useful to say, but it's possible that the only people who'd benefit from it are constitutionally unable to do so. Let's hope not.

Don't miss the new book in my Operation Tomcat series. Operation Badger will release on 1 June, on both AMAZON and SMASHWORDS, and can be preordered at either site.

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