Writers, Read

“Read, read, read! Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it is good you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

*Faulkner’s Advice to Writers

I’m a book junkie. I’m always reading at least three at a time: my own (for revisions), a spiritual book (for the revision of my soul), and a book in the genre I write (historical fiction.)

I have to. I can’t help myself. I’m addicted and obsessed. From paper books to ebooks, magazines to newspapers, blogs and devotionals, I can’t get enough words. I need words like nourishment, exercise, breathing.

Time and again, I find authors asking for recommendations of the best craft and style books for writing, and I reply with the old standby’s ON WRITING, BIRD BY BIRD, etc. But really, the best reading a writer can do is of popular, contemporary works in his or her own genre. Reading these books skillfully demonstrates technique in action.  How did the writer start the action? How did the author weave in backstory, setting, the central problem of the story? How is figurative language used? Is the theme clear? How are chapters started and ended? What is the format of the book? The point of view?

These are all tremendously important questions and textbook answers can be found in some of the best craft workbooks on the market, but there’s nothing like experience to best teach lessons. Experience these elements of style embedded in the fiction and they will become more of a natural, organic part of your process than any workbook checklist.

My friend, Michael Neff, at Algonkian Novel Workshops (which I give my highest endorsement) recommended that writers physically write long passages from our favorite authors as a tactile way to experience the kind of prose we want to create. I’ve found this exercise extremely helpful, in addition to being a somewhat therapeutic way to interact with words away from the blinking cursor on the screen.

How about you? What are some of the most important books you’ve read to your writing process? Are manuals on craft and style the most helpful to your writing, or is fiction? I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations.



*Photo courtesy of Elements Of Persuasion at DeviantArt.com.

*Quote from thisrecording.com



33 thoughts on “Writers, Read

  1. Lisa Kilian says:

    It’s both really.

    I was actually thinking about this just the other day. I can usually find a good fiction book that jumpstarts my creative process. But when nothing is really grabbing my attention, I can usually grab a book on writing (usually biographies or memoirs) and that always gets me going again.

    Lisa 🙂

  2. Fiction for inspiration and craft books for technical sounds like a good formula to me. <3*

    *I want to leave a smiley face but then I feel like I am lessening the impact of smiley face by overusing the smiley face. Therefore, I leave you with ❤ instead. (I'm trying to cut back on my smiley face exclamation point addiction.

  3. Joe Hesch says:

    I fear I’ve always been a technique geek, even during my basketball coaching days. Always thought I could find a better, more successful way, discounting whatever talent I might have. It wasn’t until five years ago that I realized I should just watch or read and then go with my own feelings. Still read technical books, but I’m not chained to their ideas so much, I learn more about the actual writing from reading Hemingway (over and over), Chekhov and Robert B. Parker.

    • erikarobuck says:

      Joe–I agree that Hemingway (over and over) is one of the best teachers. He blends craft and instruction within his prose. (MOVEABLE FEAST)

      Thanks so much for stopping by my blog!

  4. Erika,

    I love that you read lots of books at the same time, too. I always have at least 3 books going: one on craft, one in genre, one for my soul, and one classic with our boys. I don’t count the book I’m writing as reading because I usually edit in one fell swoop, over and over again, not in process as I write the first draft.

    I’ve determined this love for books is a decorating technique, because stacks of books are always about the house. As we adapt to e-books, it won’t be as effective, though …

    Happy reading and writing!


  5. Great post, Erika. I couldn’t agree more that the best way to learn how to write is to read. (It’s also the best way to learn how to live, in my opinion.)

    I read lots of different genres, though I don’t always finish every book I read. When that happens, I go back and scan the opening pages/chapters to figure out WHY I lost interest – what was missing, what turned me off. So I agree wholeheartedly with Faulkner’s quote above. To learn about good writing, we must also learn about bad writing.

  6. I’ve tried this exercise and thnk it’s wonderful! It seems to open up something inside. Love Bird by Bird and On Writing. Another good one is: How to Write A Damn Good Novel.
    Thanks for another great post, Erika. Inspirational!!

  7. I agree. I always have to be reading fiction because I think it’s important to constantly be exposed to the type of writing we admire. When I get stumped, I like to read poetry. It’s like dessert after a great meal; it’s all about the sweetness of the language. And I always have technique books on my shelves for reference.

  8. I’m with you 100%, Erika. I am not a craft-book reader. I like the real thing. And while dissecting a novel to “see how it’s done” would seem to detract from the pure pleasure of reading it, I think I’ve learned to get a double whammy out of the experience. I sick a stack of post-its into the inside of the novel I’m reading so I can jot notes about style, plot, character, etc., AS I’m reading. It’s become a normal routine, allowing me to enjoy the story WHILE learning the craft. Sometimes I transfer those notes/passages from a book into a master list of “good writing” examples – to use later for inspiration. Will have to give the writing exercise a try. Love the idea.

    • erikarobuck says:

      Melissa–GREAT idea with the post it notes. I scribble all over my books and it drives my husband CRAZY (on the off chance that he’ll actually read one I give to him.)

  9. What a great idea. I love to write long hand sometimes. It does something to the process for me that I don’t quite understand. Maybe rewriting others’ words will put me in a state of being present & conscious to their greatness.

  10. Patrick Ross says:

    There are a lot of really good ones out there. I particularly enjoyed one I read recently, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman, which is useful for non-memoir writers as well. In fact, Sue’s writing is so compelling she’s one of the reasons I decided to pursue an MFA at Vermont, where she teaches.

  11. Nina Badzin says:

    Such a great post! There is NO question I let myself get too bogged down in craft books this year. I agree, they have their place (especially for me without an MFA or even undergrad creative degree.) But I know I write best when I’m reading tons of fiction in my genre (women’s fiction). That’s why I forced myself to do a book-a-week challenge. It’s been great. It’s the supreme “showing not telling” antidote to too many craft books.

  12. […] “Writers, Read,” by Erika Robuck, Muse: Erica is a book junkie, for which I’m sure many authors are grateful. Here she starts an interesting conversation on what genre of books are more helpful for writers, books on the craft or books in the genre they’re writing. […]

  13. That bit about writing out long passages from a favorite writer’s work as a warm up–I’ve done that! A college prof encouraged us to do that and although I first thought it was a little hokey (and might even encourage plagiarism) I was amazed how it wasn’t the writer’s words that soaked into the psyche, but rather the rhythm and flow. I don’t do it a lot anymore, but now and then, when I’m feeling uninspired, I give it another go.

    • erikarobuck says:

      It’s so nice to take a break from the keyboard now and then. I’m always fascinated when I hear of authors who still draft in longhand. Tracy Chevalier writes her work in a notebook, then types it into her computer and edits as she goes.

  14. Julia says:

    Although I read both fiction and craft books, fiction seems to make me want to write more. I am really fascinated by the long-hand writing out of passages from favorite authors; it makes a lot of sense, and I definitely will try it. Thanks for an interesting post. My first time here; and I can’t wait to check out more of your posts!

  15. stephalex says:

    Hi Erika! After a lifetime of consuming novels like chocolate on Halloween, I had a bought of “reader’s block.” I couldn’t get through a novel for like four months. I truly blame overzealous reading up on the craft. I became obsessed by analyzing the writing and couldn’t get lost in the story! So depressing…

    I finally got over it with The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, one of the best books I’ve read in years. I found her plotting to be superb. I was working through some problems with tension in my book, and somehow I was able to look at this book as a writer and a reader. Once I got going I couldn’t stop, and thankfully I’m back to my old bookworm ways. Thank you, Kate Morton, down in Australia! If you were on Twitter I would so follow you. 🙂

    • erikarobuck says:

      THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN is one of my favorite books ever. Kate Morton is a master. Yes, she needs to join Twitter. She does have a Facebook page.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  16. I learn the most from writers I admire — whether it’s my genre or not because nuances in excellent storytelling transcend genres. The more authors I can learn from, the better.

    I’m happy to have found your blog — and I love reading historical fiction!

  17. Jill says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I have similar remarks in a post I put on my own blog last week. I am regularly get students in my writing classes who think they can write a novel without ever reading a book themselves.

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