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Should You Read While You Write?

There are virtually no rules that work for every single writer. So it’s no surprise to hear from my fellow writer friends that everyone has slightly different rules about whether, and what, to read while they’re working on their own books.

Some writers have a hard-and-fast no reading while writing rule; some even include research in that prohibition. They read and read and research. Then they stop, and the drafting begins.

Some fiction writers don’t read any fiction whatsoever while they’re drafting. Stay and Why Can’t I Be You author Allie Larkin says she focuses on reading only nonfiction “when I’m working on the first draft or big draft restructuring. Often it’s directly or tangentially related to what I’m working on, but sometimes it’s just entertainment. I binge on fiction between drafts and when the work in front of me is less consuming. But I avoid anything similar to the dynamics of my book because I don’t want to limit myself.”

Others are happy to read for enjoyment during the drafting process as long as the book isn’t in their genre. Historical fiction authors avoid historical fiction, thriller writers read non-thrillers, and so forth. The reasons behind this seem self-evident.

The definition of “reading” also matters here, as multiple authors mentioned that they preferred audiobook. As Therese Walsh puts it, “I tend to listen to audiobooks more when I’m writing, only because I crave time away from the written word and for my eyes to rest.”

Me? I pretty much read everything all the time. I do have two guidelines that could be considered rules:

  • While I’m in active drafting mode, I avoid reading any fiction that includes any of the same characters. Some of my books are more history-inspired than others, but my most recent, Girl in Disguise, is based on the life of Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective. There aren’t a ton of novels with Kate Warne as a character, but there are a few. And we’re all drawing on the same small patch of ground, since Kate’s documented historical record only includes four or five cases and a handful of facts. But I wanted to make sure I was drawing only from the record and my own interpretation of Kate, not anyone else’s. So I avoided reading any of those books until after Girl in Disguise was drafted and turned in.
  • Again, during the process of putting together that crucial first draft, if I start reading a book and discover I don’t like it – I stop reading. Call it superstition. It’s not like I read great books with the sole intent of improving my writing by osmosis. Though of course, improving one’s own writing, over time, is one of many, many reasons to read great books. But for some reason I fear that reading awkward or unconvincing writing while I’m trying to draft my own writing will make my own voice awkward or unconvincing. Sandra Gulland, author of the forthcoming The Game of Hope, has a similar guideline. “I find that I must always be reading for pleasure, especially before bed. I put no restrictions on what I read at that time, but for one: whatever reading I do must be of delightful quality. It’s as if I’m honing my writer’s ‘ear.’”

Do you have your own rules for reading while you write? What are they?

About Greer Macallister

Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN’S LIE was an Indie Next pick, Target Book Club selection, and a USA Today bestseller, and has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films. Her next novel is GIRL IN DISGUISE, about America’s first female private investigator, Kate Warne (Sourcebooks, March 2017.)

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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.