Writers shouldn’t read.
Let me be clear: I am convinced that they read, and collect, and compile, and rearrange all sorts of things. Facts and hair-brained ideas equally become fodder to generate stories. In some fashion or another, I believe authors derive the majority of their ideas from outside influences. Actually, probably all the ideas, if you think about it. A new technology in some imagined future mode becomes the driving force of a science fiction story. A myth of Gaelic woods-craft flowers into elvish fantasy. Even the societal pressures of a marriage well made two hundred years ago form the foundations of Victorian romance.
Ah, but I’ve now made a statement flying in the face of one of Writing’s Golden Rules. The indignity of it cries on the page, demanding my justification! Well, so be it. Allow me to amend my words.
Writers shouldn’t merely read.
Now, I personally think very highly of reading. My appetite for novels knew few bounds as a boy. At sixteen years old, one favorite summer pastime involved collecting brown paper grocery sacks full of dog-eared paperbacks from among my school friends and a drive to our local used book store. The owner was a wire-rimmed and tie-dyed fellow who always met us with a shy smile and seemed pleased to have our somewhat regular custom. Ted O’Brien and I would often quote to each other the man’s tag line, “Read fast and come back!”
However, there lies a vast difference between reading and study.
Analyze the style and technique of your most cherished authors. Read the book the first time for pleasure, but pick it back up a few weeks later and give it a hard look. These are your favorite writers, and you have little choice but to emulate them unconsciously, so you’d better figure out what works and what doesn’t in their prose. Place your emotional connection in a jar for a little while and refuse to forgive them their foibles. When you get jarred out of stream by some clunky narrative or awkward concept, take note! Recognize that they aren’t perfect and learn! Then, when your clinical dissection ends, uncork that jar and welcome them warmly again.
Always remember, there is a reason why this book or author affects you.
Before we allow ourselves to grow into up-tight drones, please bear in mind that pure technical prowess is as dry as cracker juice. Boring and dead, listless and lifeless. Resist the temptation to overwork. Refuse to blunt style with the hammer of the technical, rather hone it on the wheel of grammar, until so sharp and clean that you may wield it as a scalpel. While good grammar offends no one, but don’t die on that battlefield. Don’t make it a matter of pride, but instead keep the desire to do things as excellently as possible.
So be inspired, but afterwards, be your best.