In the age of lockdown, it’s time to get reading.
Everyone should read. Read to escape. Read to know things. What should you read right now? I suggest fiction. Some readers are finding a new appreciation for Jane Austen, whose upper class female characters were kept cooped up and feared dying of a trifling virus before tea. Or maybe now’s the time to reread the entire Harry Potter collection, where bones regrow overnight and love conquers all. Whatever you do, just don’t read The Road or any other bleak post-apocalyptic novel. Unless you’re a writer, in which case, read anything and everything.
If you are a writer, you read not just to know things or escape, but to learn how to be a better writer, which is an ongoing journey with no end. So many budding writers ask me where to submit their work or how to get their work noticed so they can get published. They’re itching to get their writing out there, but haven’t paid much attention to anyone else’s. They don’t realize they can answer a lot of their own questions by reading.
But first, let me back up a second: I am proceeding with the assumption that if you write, you enjoy reading as a pastime. If that is not the case, I have to ask why you expect other people to enjoy something you don’t? I remind you as well that publishing is an industry. Why would you endeavor to create a product you yourself wouldn’t buy?
Assuming you enjoy reading but haven’t done much of it, consider that publishing without reading is like contributing to a conversation you haven’t been listening to. Imagine you’re an editor at a magazine. What do you think of pitches from someone who clearly has never read your magazine and has no idea what kind of dialogue you’ve been having with your readers? They’re just butting in, Hello! with non sequiturs, like texts from my mother. That’s why so many submission pages spell out the obvious and urge you to read before you hit send.
In addition to having a sense of the literary landscape, you also need to study other writers’ technique, just as painters or musicians do. If you’ve ever taken an art class, you’ve learned the basics of drawing, then maybe graduated to copying famous works. If you studied music as a child, you were surely asked to learn pieces composed by other people, possibly people who had been dead for hundreds of years. Your teacher didn’t ask you to just come up with your own music and memorize it. You had to study. The same is true of writers. Some writers take workshops or get MFA’s. Others self-teach the craft of writing. But what they all have in common is reading: this includes the classics and contemporary literature. Imagine a conversation among writers you admire, dead or alive. Would you be able to keep up? Maybe no one could, but you should endeavor to all the same. Because literature is worth it.
Another benefit of reading is you’ll naturally find where you want to publish, as you take note of the magazines you enjoy and the publishers releasing the books you like. You’ll also discover writers to admire whose reading lists are regularly shared on social media, or in newsletters. A few great examples are Matt Bell, who’s added a lot to my bookshelf, or Saeed Jones, who produces a fabulous, prose-driven newsletter.
After you’ve published shorter pieces, such as short stories or essays, you may be ready to tackle a full length project. When you’re pitching yourself as a writer to the industry gatekeepers, editors and agents will expect you to tell them which contemporaries your writing resembles and if you say Tolstoy, you’re going to sound like a boob. They will also expect you to be able to sum up your book in one sentence. Reading is part of the groundwork that prepares you to enter the foreign, bizarre, and complex arena of publishing. As you read more and follow more writers, you’ll join writing groups and other networks where writers talk about the ins and outs of the industry, which will help prepare you for what lies ahead. In other words, you lose nothing by reading, you only gain.
Above all, you should read out of respect for the craft of writing, which requires years to achieve mastery over, just like the piano or basketball. If you don’t have that passion for it, or appreciation for your ancestors and peers among writers, then you must ask yourself, Why do you write? And who for?