What should a writer read?

We’ve heard it said a million times – good writers must first be good readers. 

But what does it mean to be a good reader?

Is it reading ten books a month? Is it reading everything published in your genre? Is it delving through countless how-to-write and self-help books?

The answer is a bit of everything.

But how? I have no time to read!

You don’t have to read x amount of books a month and you don’t need to sacrifice study/social/exercise/family/work time to satisfy some arbitrary quota of books. I’m a pretty slow reader and as I’m working full time, I don’t have much spare time. What time I do have, I’d rather spend writing. Last year, I only read 20 books the entire year. I usually only read during my commute and lunch breaks, adding up to about 100 minutes each weekday. I don’t read on weekends very much, unless, again, I’m travelling somewhere.

Last year, I resolved to read more books outside my genre (primarily YA/NA fantasy). Apart from two biographies and one crime novel, it wasn’t a huge success. This year, I have again resolved to read more widely. And so far this year, it’s working! I’m three books in and only one of those is YA or fantasy.

What genres should I read to improve my writing?

This is really subjective so take the following as a guideline. The important thing here is to do your research and choose good, well-written examples of the genre.

How do I realistically show how my characters react emotionally to the plot points?

Read biographies or, even better autobiographies, to see how real people have overcome their struggles and pushed through to success.

My characters are meant to be together but my readers keep saying the romance is flat/unbelievable.

Read romance. Focus on the emotional relationship building aspects, rather the physical stuff.

I’m having problems with pacing/there’s no tension in the plot.

Read crime/thrillers. This genre is the king of pacing and suspense. Pay attention to plot structure and, in individual scenes, the effect of sentence length on tension.

All too often, my scenes are just characters talking in white rooms.

Read sci-fi or fantasy. Let’s not forget, worldbuilding is as essential if your story is set in a council estate in Birmingham as it is for a story set on a spaceship floating between the moons of Neptune. Good sci-fi and fantasy can show you how to set a scene concisely and capture the essence of a culture in just a few scattered phrases.

I’ve got a great idea for some characters but no ideas for a plot! What do I do?

Read history. There are some wacky things that have gone down over the years and once you start looking, you never know what you’ll find. Oftentimes, when it comes to history, fact is stranger than fiction.

But I don’t like to read anything else.

That’s fair. I didn’t hugely like either of the biographies I read last year and although the crime novel was objectively quite good, I’d rather just watch that kind of story play out on screen.

But what reading outside your genre does for you as a writer is that it shakes you loose of all the ingrained ideas about how to tell a story. It shows you new ways of storytelling, new characters, even, perhaps, new ways of being.

And if you really, really, really don’t like reading outside your genre, then read those how-to-write/edit books. Be discerning, but when you find the right ones, they can be a treasure trove of tips and solutions to take your story from promising to attention grabbing.


This post has ended up way longer than I was expecting so, if you reached the bottom, a huge thank you and an imaginary piece of cake for you! 🙂

Do you read outside your main genre? Do you think it helps improve your writing?

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