I’m guessing that everyone here is a reader. I’m also guessing that most of you authors began writing out of a love for reading. When you started, reading was a grand escape and a fun leisure activity, and you read whatever you wanted whenever you wanted, but now that you’re an author you hear people saying “Read these books to improve your craft!” “Don’t read those or you’ll take too much inspiration for your own books and write a copy!” and other dos and don’ts that could make reading less enjoyable. We start reading for writing instead of reading for reading, which has its benefits but also its drawbacks. Here’s what I personally think authors should read (hint: it’s pretty much everything) and why each category is beneficial.
Read Inside Your Genre
And read widely. Most genres have multiple sub-genres, as well, and you shouldn’t be afraid to venture into new-to-you sub-genres and broaden your horizons.
Reading the genre you write gives you an opportunity to learn about the tropes, conventions, and expectations of the genre, which you can then leverage in your own writing. What do you want to keep that’s familiar? What do you want to change or subvert instead? By exploring different sub-genres, you can also observe the subtle shifts in these tropes and expectations from one sub-genre to the next and possibly figure out where your story fits best.
Plus, the genres we write in are usually the same genres we enjoy reading, so reading in your genre is often just a lot of fun.
If you’re writing in a genre you don’t usually read, try to find someone who’s read the genre and ask them for recommendations that might be suited to your tastes.
When Not to Read Inside Your Genre
There are people who will tell you that if you read the genre you write, you’ll pick up too many ideas from what’s already been done and end up with a cliche novel (or something along those lines). For some, this is a genuine concern. Personally, I don’t think that it’s something I struggle with. Knowing your reading and writing habits will allow you to determine this for yourself. If you might be tempted to pull a lot from your reading, it might be good to step back from your genre until you finish the project you’re working on and then go back to it later.
Read Outside Your Genre
Cheers for being well-read! While it’s often good to read inside your genre, it’s also highly beneficial to read outside of it.
In addition to the general benefits of expanding your reading repertoire, reading outside your genre can provide a glimpse into the differences in storytelling from genre to genre, different uses of prose, and individual storytelling elements such as stakes and worldbuilding. It can also be a welcome break if you’ve been reading in your own genre for too long, or a necessary one if you’re likely to pull too much inspiration from your primary genre.
You can also gain excellent inspiration from outside your primary genre for whatever project you’re working on. Maybe you’re writing a high fantasy, but a romance is a key component and the contemporary novel you just read provided an excellent blueprint. Or maybe the sci-fi novel you just read inspires you to consider the mechanics of technology in your fantasy world, or the fantasy you just read does an excellent job of conveying wonder through its prose and you want to do the same with your contemporary novel. Whatever the case may be, different elements and ways of looking at things can be highly beneficial.
When Not to Read Outside Your Genre
If you’re looking to fulfill readers’ genre expectations (in structure, prose, etc.), you’ll need to read inside your genre rather than outside. While it can be an excellent idea to blend genres and break out of your primary genre’s mold, when it comes to things you want (or need) to keep the same in order for your book to be comfortable to your audience, your own genre is the best teacher.
Obviously, if you’re writing fiction you’ll need to read fiction. The structure of a novel is completely different from that of a non-fiction book, to say nothing of the different types of development involved in the content. In order to write effective fiction, it’s necessary to read effective fiction and study what makes it effective and how craft is used.
When Not to Read Fiction
I can’t think of a time you shouldn’t read fiction. It’s a learning tool, an escape, and inspiration (both for writing and for life, ideally) all at once.
Fun fact: I’ve read more non-fiction than fiction this year, which is very strange for me because I used to “hate” non-fiction and generally avoid it. I guess it just goes to show that all it takes is the right subject matter.
No one has exactly the same set of interests and values that you do. Growing knowledgeable in topics that interest you can spill over into your writing, whether you’re writing a story set in the real world or in a galaxy far, far away. My recent interests have been education (specifically “unschooling”) and medieval history, which have each gotten me thinking about different aspects of my story worlds. Game of Queens by Sarah Gristwood got me thinking about the nobility in my worlds and how they would realistically interact, both within their own borders and internationally, while Unschooled by Kerry McDonald caused me to realize that the education system in Virilia doesn’t currently reflect the culture’s values or the structure of society outside of school (a problem I’m really excited to fix in my next draft of Calligraphy Guild, since the tone and feel of Virilen society is one of my favorite parts of the book).
Maybe your interests are in sewing and pottery, or in theology and psychology, or in whatever other numerous combinations. Whatever your interests, the manner in which they overlap and interact with each other is unique to you and will give your fiction a personal flair (a contribution to your “writer voice”).
When Not to Read Non-Fiction
Again, I can’t think of a reason not to. Whether you’re using it to directly impact your writing or not, reading non-fiction is an important experience and can actually be quite enjoyable when you find what interests you.
Which category do you find has the most positive impact on your writing, personally? (I’m finding non-fiction to be an unexpected favorite, lol.) Are there any categories you avoid? Do you disagree with any of my assessments? I’d love to discuss with you in the comments!