"Read! Read! Read! And then read some more. When you find something that thrills you, take it apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, to see what made it so wonderful. Then use those tricks the next time you write."
That charge to young writers happens to come from novelist W.P. Kinsella, but in fact he's echoing centuries of good advice. Here's how 12 other authors, past and present, have stressed the importance of reading to a writer's development.
- Read, Observe, and Practice
For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries: to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style.
(Ben Jonson, Timber, or Discoveries, 1640)
- Exercise the Mind
Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
(Richard Steele, The Tatler, 1710)
- Read the Best
Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.
(Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849)
- Imitate, Then Destroy
Writing is a difficult trade which must be learned slowly by reading great authors; by trying at the outset to imitate them; by daring then to be original and by destroying one's first productions.
(attributed to André Maurois, 1885-1967)
- Read Critically
When I was teaching writing--and I still say it--I taught that the best way to learn to write is by reading. Reading critically, noticing paragraphs that get the job done, how your favorite writers use verbs, all the useful techniques. A scene catches you? Go back and study it. Find out how it works.
(Tony Hillerman, quoted by G. Miki Hayden in Writing the Mystery: A Start-to-Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional, 2nd ed. Intrigue Press, 2004)
- Read Everything
Read everything--trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out.
(William Faulkner, interviewed by Lavon Rascoe for The Western Review, Summer 1951)
- Read Bad Stuff, Too
If you are going to learn from other writers don't only read the great ones, because if you do that you'll get so filled with despair and the fear that you'll never be able to do anywhere near as well as they did that you'll stop writing. I recommend that you read a lot of bad stuff, too. It's very encouraging. "Hey, I can do so much better than this." Read the greatest stuff but read the stuff that isn't so great, too. Great stuff is very discouraging.
(Edward Albee, quoted by Jon Winokur in Advice to Writers, 1999)
- Be a Voracious, Loving Reader
When you start reading in a certain way, that's already the beginning of your writing. You're learning what you admire and you're learning to love other writers. The love of other writers is an important first step. To be a voracious, loving reader.
(Tess Gallagher, quoted by Nicholas O'Connell in At the Field's End: Interviews With 22 Pacific Northwest Writers, rev. ed., 1998)
- Tap Into the World Consciousness
Too many writers are trying to write with too shallow an education. Whether they go to college or not is immaterial. I've met many self-educated people who are much better read than I am. The point is that a writer needs a sense of the history of literature to be successful as a writer, and you need to read some Dickens, some Dostoyevsky, some Melville, and other great classics--because they are part of our world consciousness, and the good writers tap into the world consciousness when they write.
(James Kisner, quoted by William Safire and Leonard Safir in Good Advice on Writing, 1992)
- Listen, Read, and Write
If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it's not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source. . . . Dogen, a great Zen master, said, "If you walk in the mist, you get wet." So just listen, read, and write. Little by little, you will come closer to what you need to say and express it through your voice.
(Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, rev ed., 2005)
- Read a Lot, Write a Lot
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one's papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn't, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor. . . .
"[R]ead a lot, write a lot" is the great commandment.
(Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, 2000)
- And Have Fun
Read a lot. Write a lot. Have fun.
For more specific suggestions on what to read, visit our reading list: 100 Major Works of Modern Creative Nonfiction.