WRITING VS. READING: WHICH IS MORE HELPFUL?

Every writer is confronted with this quote at some point:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut." - Stephen King


If memory serves, this quote originates from On Writing, an awesome resource for new writers looking for some guidance. The advice is clear: in order to be a good writer, you must write and read.


  • Read to expand your mind, grasp narrative elements, and gather an understanding of what to do and what not to do.

  • Write to make use of that knowledge and build upon it as you learn what works for you.


It's wonderful advice, really.


The problem is that too many people get stuck on the reading part.


It's an unpopular opinion. Everyone knows that reading creates better writers. One cannot successfully write in a vacuum, with limited literary experiences to guide them.


However, writers regularly offer the "read more" advice to newbies and seasoned writers. They're often followed by notes about how they've read 70, 90, 110 books this year alone.


And this is why Goodreads culture sometimes blows my mind. Offering this advice followed by information like that promotes decision or research paralysis - a writer shouldn't tinker with words until he's read X number of books.


Goodreads culture creates competition not just among readers, but among writers. If an author says they've read a lot, potential readers will think they're more credible, thus boosting the popularity of the author and their published books over time. It may even open up networking opportunities. Everyone wants to be one of the best, right?


Following the suggestion to read tens of dozens a book a year might be an issue of confidence, but writers routinely beat themselves up because they can't meet volume expectations. And every writer was once a beginner afraid to start.



Reading helps with writing, but the "read more" advice has gotten twisted among many writing communities. There are several problems with pressuring writers to read to excess to improve craft:


1.) As a society, we spend a lot of time reading.

You're reading right now. Articles count. Social media posts count. All words count. Is this kind of reading different than reading a fiction novel? Absolutely. But we're still constantly exposed to the things that matter to fiction.


We all learn narrative elements at a very young age and build that knowledge as we're bombarded with TV, movies, and books. Writers choose to add depth to that knowledge through study or conscious watching/reading.


While exposure to more media (yes, books are media) is helpful to a point, digging your feet into the mud and writing and reworking a story has immense value, also. It gives the study a point and direction; if someone realizes that they can't write a good character for the life of them, for example, they'll know to spend time learning about fiction's great characters.


If they don't write often enough, they can't set realistic goals because they have very limited benchmarks. You don't know what you don't know.


You can spend months learning how to best climb mountains, but ultimately, the best thing to do is learn the basic necessities and then try it. It might suck, but you'll ask a lot of questions and learn about yourself.


2.) There are a lot of bad books out there.

I grew up learning how to read during a time when most published books were meticulously edited. This didn't mean that they were flawless, but that they were combed through by multiple experienced professionals, thus ensuring good quality. Nowadays, and I say this as someone who has self-published, anyone can slap together a story, hire an unknown editor on Fiverr, and throw up a book on KDP for $2.99. As a result, there are a lot of stories out there that have issues, to put it lightly. Newbies looking for literary guidance need to be aware of where their books come from to know if their quality can be relied on.


This isn't to say that newbies shouldn't read self-published books. They should. But they need to build a secure foundation before they can even know what's considered bad.


Rather than telling newbies to read like the survival of the planet depends on it, it's more productive to tell them to check out the classics first. Award-winning novels are safe, too.


One of my personal favorites is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, but we've all got our lists.


Even seasoned writers can develop poor habits by reading bad novels. Although it's highly unlikely that every book read will be a loser, it is possible to get several bad ones in a row and have those authors' poor habits bleed into the writer's work.


I see a lot of people claim that this is because those writers haven't established their own habits yet. I totally disagree. We are influenced by our environments. If you're more likely to get fat by living with a cupcake addict, you're more likely to misuse commas by reading authors who overuse them. A quick search of my Twitter feed shows quite a few people laughing at themselves about how they've "forgotten how to write" because of bad book experiences.


Bottom line, mindful reading is important. Read new authors and potentially bad books, but spread them out amongst ones whose quality you trust.



3.) Comprehension of high-volume reading is questionable.

I'm going to get shot for saying this, but there are multiple studies to back it up: comprehension for most speed-readers is poor.


If someone tells a writer they need to read 70+ books a year to keep up, in my opinion they either A.) have a lifestyle that affords plenty of free time, or B.) don't retain much of what they're reading because they read so fast, which may or may not show up in their writing. There are plenty of other reasons to pressure people to read more, some of which are nefarious, but I won't go into those now.


Studying literature is like working out. If you go a bit slowly and deliberately, you get better results.


If someone tells me they read more than a book a week, my eyebrows automatically raise. Of course, books can be all lengths (take, for instance,The Universe Doesn't Give a Flying Fuck About You: 10 pages).


Fifty-two books a year is perfectly doable for a bookworm. As the number increases, though, the remainder of books read almost always seem to be in audio form.


I can't say much about audiobooks since I don't use them, but studies on comprehension are mixed. I was interested in how many audiobooks I could have listened to while commuting to work this year, so I did the following math:


  • 10 hours each week * 52 = 520 hours commuting yearly (oh my God)

  • 65,000 words (length of my current work in progress) / 150 (average words read aloud per minute) = 433.33 minutes / 60 mins = 1 audiobook finished every 7.23 hours

  • 520 hours / 7.23 hours = nearly 72 audiobooks "read" yearly

Damn.

It's also worth noting that the average novel is 60,000 - 100,000 words long. My work in progress is on the shorter side, so the average # of audiobooks read yearly would likely be fewer.


More importantly, the average person doesn't have a heinous commute through the inner city. The average person's commute is just over 24 minutes long. Let's readjust the numbers:


  • 4 hours each week * 52 = 208 hours commuting yearly

  • 65,000 words (length of my current work in progress) / 150 (average words read aloud per minute) = 433.33 minutes / 60 mins = 1 audiobook finished every 7.23 hours

  • 208 hours / 7.23 hours = nearly 29 audiobooks "read" yearly

Say someone read 110 books this year. Assuming they only use Audible in the car, they most likely listened to 29 books and read 81.


The average reader reads 300 words per minute at 60% comprehension. Words read per minute on screens is 25% slower (225 words per minute) with even less retention. It's fair to assume most heavy-readers are using Kindle Unlimited so they can save money.


Let's go back to the example of a 65,000-word novel; it should take the average reader 4-3/4 - 5 hours to read. Let's say that frequent readers read on the faster side.


4.75 hours * 81 books read in a year = 384.75 hours spent reading yearly.


There are factors I'm not including here, but keep in mind that this example novel is short. For perspective, Cujo is said to be over 120,000 words and the novel isn't actually very thick. Most likely, time spent reading is much higher.


I don't know about you, but I don't have an hour plus to read every day. That sounds like a chore. When I worked at my last job, I had 2.5 free hours to select from each weekday to read, exercise, and write - being chronically ill, I sometimes passed out from exhaustion before getting there. By paring down on reading and television, I was able to write another book and focus on my health.


Life happens and we don't all tick off our free-time boxes the way we want to. My guess is that these readers are blowing through books at warp speed.


Their comprehension levels are already diminished (mileage may vary), so advising other writers to read just as many books as they are seems... Well, do I need to say it?


Some people have a lifestyle that affords genuine high-volume high-comprehension reading, but you know what? Most people don't.


What this comes down to is speed-reading, and speed-reading is a myth. It's glorified skimming. It's semi-useful to the craft of writing at best.


Newbies: don't speed-read.



I've been attacked for saying that writers shouldn't read so much, with emphasis on the points that not writing enough or not reading enough are usually issues of motivation. These numbers don't lie, but for some, that's true. It seems that motivational issues often stem from the person not feeling good enough to start, though. Their expectations come from somewhere.


And there's another side to this...


The writers who brag about their Goodreads numbers aren't usually terribly prolific writers. By prolific, I mean they write 3-5 novels each year.


If the point of all this reading is to study craft, then wouldn't it be nice to put that education to use? Like reading, writing gets easier the more you do it.


When writers give advice to people despite not having written much, it's like reading a pamphlet on plumbing, tinkering under the sink, and then qualifying yourself to teach a plumbing course. Those students have no idea you know jack, and they trust you.


It's all right to say, "I don't know a goddamn thing, but here's what I think..."


The reality is that the tides of business, technology, and publishing change quarterly. You know what you can fit into your schedule. Be ravenous about pursuing your goals, but...



Value your time

I'm part of a writing community with dozens of self-published authors earning six-figures. Some are on track for seven. The members study the market by reading moderately and have gained success by learning about marketing and how to write books quickly.


Books people like, on a book every month or two schedule.

… Only made possible because they took the time to practice writing.

They honed in on what they actually wanted to do and assessed their time. They realized that if they spent their time paralyzed with fear and studied, studied, studied, they'd never have successful careers. So they do both: reading and writing.


Your mileage may vary, but there is usually a reason authors get stuck in a funk of writing 1-3 books per year, and it's this: distribution of time. Sometimes there's not enough time, period, and sometimes there's plenty of time that's being misused.


If you want to be a reader, read. (Just please don't force obsessive, self-serving competitions on others.)


If you want to earn a living from writing someday, split your time between reading and writing.


Stephen King said this in so many words, but some writers turn into beasts when the reading vs. writing subject comes up among indies. I'll tell you why:


Indies need you to read more! If you're reading less, the chance of you picking up their book goes down! Fewer sales, less cash flow. Indies rely on other writers to read their books. I'm in a glass castle throwing stones, but integrity is important to me.


You, reader, know if anything I've said applies to you.


Look, reading is wonderful - it allows you to live in another world and experience things you'll never have the opportunity to. For those interested in writing as a career, it's a chance to meet like-minded people and improve your craft. I hope that you reading this someday buy my book, but I hope that you take the time to properly appreciate what I've done right or how I've butchered it.


Always remember to make room for action after you learn something. Always.






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© 2020 by Ashley Dufault. Website by Half-Moon Media.