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This may seem like blasphemy to a lot of you, but can I become a good writer without doing incredible amounts of reading? I never read for fun growing up (thank you, videogames) and have just recently started enjoying it, however I don't have as much free time as I did when I was young. Is there any hope for me?

To give you an idea of my bandwidth I began to read the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time back in December of 2013 and I just finished the last book in September of this year.

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    good grief; if you're just now starting to read for fun, I wouldn't begin with Tolkien. Start with JKRowling and PG Wodehouse. Plot, character, and sparkling language without the headaches. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 22 '14 at 18:30
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    I agree. You have to get limber before you can really enjoy acrobatics. Start with something a little less dense first, like Ursula K LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Madeleine L'Engle, Tad Williams, Orson Scott Card, and Stephen R Donaldson before you get into Tolkien and Eco. – Kit Z. Fox Oct 22 '14 at 18:36
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    The LotR was one of the first books I read as a child after I had learned to read. Its narrative is straightforward and its language clear and comprehensible. I am completely surprised that anyone would recommend you abstain from it. – user5645 Oct 22 '14 at 20:21
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    @what Are you talking about the trilogy or The Hobbit? Because The Hobbit is literally a children's book, and very much intended to be easy to read. The LOTR trilogy is neither. If you found Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King to be straightforward, clear, and comprehensible on the first shot just after learning to read at what, age 5? then I salute your supergenius IQ. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 22 '14 at 20:25
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    If you don't have time to read, what has convinced you you will have the time to write? It takes far longer to write something than to read something of the same length. (I've never met someone who types up what they creatively develop faster than they read.) – Sylas Seabrook Oct 26 '14 at 4:59

12 Answers 12

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Not really, no. That would be like trying to learn a foreign language without ever hearing it spoken or seeing it written.

You can certainly write, inasmuch as you can write words down on a page. But that's not "becoming a good writer." if you have no idea what other books look like, then you'll basically be trying to invent the modern novel from scratch.

You won't have any sense of what works and what to avoid; what can be powerful and what's already been done to death; what expectations readers will demand you meet and what surprises will knock their socks off. I should qualify -- it's not that you'll have no sense at all, because you presumably have seen movies and TV and so on. You're not brand new to stories. And yet, prose is a very different form, with a different audience, a different language, and different terrain. You will not blunder your way into greatness, or even competence, by sheer serendipity.

Consider: you want to write a book that you, apparently, would rather not read, because it's a book. How likely are you to be pleased with this book, then? How will you be able to tell if you're doing "well" or "not well"? Who, precisely, do you think will be a good audience for your work, and how can you tell if they'll like it without knowing what else they enjoy?

The good news is, reading is not a very onerous hobby to break into. It doesn't take a lot of time or effort, you can start with whatever catches your fancy, you can go at your own pace. Heck, you can read on the bus, or listen to books on tape, and soak fiction up by the liter. (Also, pro tip: if you don't have time to read, then when is it you think you'll have time to write?)

And, you don't necessarily need to have read a ton in order to start becoming a good writer. You've read some Tolkien? Great, now you know how those books look; you have a model and something to imitate. Read another fantasy book or two, if that's your style - you'll learn more about fantasy, and you'll also see some differences from Tolkien. Great; you've got a broader range than you did two books ago. Keep reading; keep writing; and keep looking for books that are in the general vicinity of what you're writing - because that's the area that will help you most, and most immediately.

You can't be a good writer without reading at all, but once you are reading, however little, you are advancing in the right direction. You can figure out the pace you want as you go along.

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Short answer: Possibly, are you a genius with lots of time?

Long answer: I guess you could ask the same question about any field. Can I be a good painter without looking at other paintings? Can I be a good carpenter without looking at other cabinets? Can I be a good architect without looking at other buildings. (Fyi: I refuse to enter the building of an architect who has never seen a building before because he's probably some sort of sentient alien lightform or something.) Could I be a good zookeeper without watching other people zookeep?

Yes, I suppose you could be, but you'd basically be reinventing the wheel. Literally, if you're an engineer making a car without actually looking at a car. Unless you're a natural genius, (which you could be and if you are congrats!) I think it would take take you significantly more time to get good by yourself (as judged based by a book-reading world) then it would to just read a little more.

That said, if you want to speed up your progress and focus your reading time, I would suggest reading some books on how to write well. On Writing by Stephen King is popular on over-all creative writing. For nonfiction, I enjoyed On Writing Well by William Zinsser. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is good for the basic building blocks. For mortaring the building blocks together, I took a class that used Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup to great effect.

...wow, man, that sounds like a lot reading, huh? =) Guess you're not going to escape that whole reading thing entirely. But good news! I think you'll find that the more you read, the faster you'll get and more you'll read in one go.

Good luck!

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    As a photographer, I find it immensely valuable to see others' photographs and work out how they were made. It gives me guidance on how I perceive my own progress and skill, and how I may improve. Not only that, it inspires me to keep photographing and also try new things. Writing isn't, and shouldn't be, any different. – Nick Bedford Oct 22 '14 at 23:14
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I understand where you're coming from. Free time is a precious resource, especially as an adult. There's only so much to go around, however this may be a case of what you're reading rather than how much you read. In other words, reading higher quality writing less often is usually better than reading lower quality writing more often.

I would start by picking the genre you'd like to write. The important thing is to write something that you would like to read. As author Tony Morrison eloquently put it, "If there's a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

If you want to try your hand at fantasy, pick a novel or a series of novels, either mainstream or classic, that has high recommendations. People either won't stop talking about it, such as those with entire Wikis devoted to them, or those that appear regularly on various lists such as a "Top 10 Fantasy Novels" list or similar.

Furthermore, don't discount activities that involve stories outside reading alone. They are everywhere such as video games, movies and comics, and television is a prime example. Whether you're watching a story or playing it, you can always take a step back and ask, "How are the creators telling the story?"

Questions you might ask yourself are:

  • Why did the show writers choose this particular scene to end on before the commercial break?
  • How did the game writers make me feel such strong sympathy for the characters I'm playing with?
  • How is the dialogue in this scene written, and how well did it translate to the delivery by the actor and its effect on me, the viewer?

If you're interested in a crafty approach, I would recommend "Reading Like a Writer" by Francine Prose. I'll be honest - it's a fairly technical guide but the benefit is that you'll be able to develop the awareness one needs when it comes to considering other people's work.

Good luck and happy writing and reading!

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You can be a good storyteller.

I'm like you. I rarely read for fun, but watched a LOT of movies and played a lot of video games (The first Half-Life game and the first Starcraft game means more to me than any novel I have ever read).

I also imagined that I wanted to write books. But what I really wanted to do was to tell stories and to be creative.

I realized that since I never read fiction (but I do read a LOT for non-fiction), I probably shouldn't try to write it. Why write something I would never bother to read?

Try writing scripts instead. If you enjoy movies and games, try to write in the format you enjoy.

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This seems like a very weird question to me. Why are you writing, exactly, if you don't like books? Do you think it's going to be a quick path to fame in lieu of an actual career? Because that's the feeling I'm getting from your question.

On the other hand, if you've come to like books as an adult but you don't feel like you have the time to read, just remember that practice is the key to everything. Write a lot, ask for constructive criticism and input, and you will get better.

You can't get better if you have no compass to guide you, be it a mentor, online community like this or reading at large.

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Of course you can!

I think it is a myth that you need to read a lot to be a good writer. I have never seen a scientific study that supported that claim.

Do you need to watch a lot of sports to be a good sportsman? Do you need to listen to a lot of music to be a good singer? No. It will certainly help in your understanding of a craft to witness a master at work, but I don't think observing a craft has a similar impact on your performance as actually training that craft.

You certainly need to be or become a master of language, but language does not only happen in literature, and much of contemporary literatur is not even written in a "literary" style, but rather emulates oral history and audiovisual media. And those that read a lot don't usually write a masterpiece on the first try, either. They, too, have to learn how to actively use the language they have until then only consumed passively. Because, as we should all know, eating a lot is not the same as understanding how the food is made.

Just do what you like and don't worry about dogmas.


Also, let us look more closely at the exact claim that is made. Because it is not said that writers simply need to read a lot, but that they need to read literary works.

Everyone who can read and write has read something. It would seem improbably that someone knows how to write without being able to read as well, so you have read texts (in the widest sense of the word) and you very probably still read more than you are aware of even today. For example, it is commonly claimed that girls read more than boys. In a study (which I am too lazy to find now) the authors found that boys do in fact read just as much as girls, only they don't read books! What they read is: magazines, cereal boxes (sic) and non-fiction books. But because "reading" means "reading fiction novels" in the minds of most parents, teachers and scholars, it seems as if boys did not read as much as girls.

Also, as I wrote, language is not only written language. There is spoken language as well. Some of the "literary" masterpieces where composed without writing, purely in the minds of their authors, and "published" by orally narrating the work to their audience. Most ancient and medieval literature is of this type, and it was often not recorded by the author, but by someone who heard the narrative, and often not directly from the author either. So, even if you assume that the ability of composing narratives requires familiarity with other narratives, you can become familiar with narrative traditions and standards by listening to audio books, watching movies, and playing computer games. After all, writers use books that teach screen writing to learn writing novels! Why should watching movies not help them understand plot structure, characterization, and current motifs, then?

Finally, reading a lot of something will not make you have more ideas. Much of genre fiction is just plagiarism: having the "idea" of writing a story like what you have read. Tolkien did not read Fantasy to write Fantasy. Wells did not read Science Fiction to write Science Fiction. The greatest works establish new genres, and their authors have never read anything like what they themselves wrote.

Finally, assuming that language and style can be learnt by other means than reading fiction, there are many writers whose first books was not written because they loved to read, but because they had had experiences or gained knowledge that they wanted to impart. Think of all the autobiographies. Of course some autobiographists loved to read and had read a lot of books before they wrote about their lives. But some have not, and the first book they read was their own.

And since writing is not only about literary quality, but also about writing something that interests your readers, the claim that books written by writers that did not read a lot are less elegant and eloquent does not really matter, either.


As a final thought, though, I am quite sure that writing will make you interested in reading.

  • ...sports is possibly somewhat different (but still, I'm sure the vast majority of top football players will have watched many football games), but I would say that you need to listen to a lot of singing in order to become a good singer. Eating alone isn't enough to become a good cook, but you do need to have a sense of flavour & what goes well together, and eating food is the only way to learn that. And I'm not sure how one would even organise a scientific study of this claim. – evilsoup Oct 23 '14 at 7:26
  • I really wanted that you could make your point more terse, but +1 anyway. – John Smithers Oct 24 '14 at 21:58
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I will somewhat disagree with the other answers by agreeing with "what" 's answer.

"Do you need to watch a lot of sports to be a good sportsman? "

In short, writing is about writing and reading is about reading.

One activity is doing the other is being, it is acting versus contemplating. From everything I read; :) one becomes a better writer by writing, not reading.

Ask this to the countless foreigners who read a lot, understand every movie, and yet who can’t really write, nor speak, fluently or correctly. And yes, I do speak from experience, as i was one of them. Even now, inspite of having read thousands of book, having lived in the US for 10 years, and writing hundreds of pages, i still do struggle with words and have to wrestle with my writings. I also know a lot of native speakers who may be great readers, but who would stare at a blank page until it tarnished.

Yes, reading books will improve your vocabulary, yes it will expose you to plots and structure. Yet, that will not make you into a writer, it will make you into a READER, a critic who will spot problems with a story and its flow. Like the saying: "those who can’t do, teach"; here it can be used as "those who can’t write, read".
A writer is not only a composer but a word smith, a storyteller, a communicator. Yes, a writer can get better at sensing what works or not by reading more, but it doesn’t work the other way around and a reader does not a writer make.

That being said, I think your main problem might be about ideas or concepts. As you seem to have mainly been exposed to movies and video games, you may not realize how cliche they are. A seemingly hot, creative, original, exiting, daring, and novel movie concept has probably been over-used to death in fiction. Sorry to break it to you, but video game's developers and movie's screenwriters are the laziest conceptual creators i know of and the ones that are not do seem to considerably dumb down their ideas to fitto the level of a brain damaged general audiance. So, even if most concepts, in Sci-Fi/Fantasy for instance, are re-hashed the genre readers expect an exponentially better story than what you may be used to. On the other hand, not knowing what was done before can be liberating creatively, and after all some of the greatest stories are not original at all.

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Tip: Switch off the Internet and pick up a book.

When I was hospitalized I couldn't bring my laptop with me. I read three books in less than one week. OK, I wasn't working either, but if you spend an average of two hours a day surfing or playing video games it means you have the time to read. Practice makes perfect, as the old saying goes.

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I'll throw in my $0.02. I agree with many of the other answers saying that you don't have to necessarily read a lot to be a great author. I can't cite any authors that didn't read very much, but perhaps there are some that didn't.

Reading definitely will help your process. It doesn't really matter what you read, but you should read and communicate with other people as often as possible in order to hone your skills. If you are in school, try taking some writing intensive courses. It might be very difficult at first, but eventually you would be able to write a 20 or 30 page term paper with ease.

Also playing video games often may be a detriment to your communication skills. As a former video game addict, I could tell that it had a negative impact on me over time. The skills that make you a good gamer are the same skills that make you a poor writer. Games teach you to be impatient, and to make snap decisions. Writing on the other hand, is a much more patient process. It is better to slow down and think about what you are writing instead of just trying to force a bunch of words on paper. I'm not saying that you should quit gaming altogether, but it would be a good idea to limit the amount of time spent playing games to a few hours a week. Instead, you could be doing more things socially, or reading, or doing something completely different.

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No. About 1% of people who read a lot are commercial-quality writers. That drops to 0% for people that do not read a lot.

Invariably anyone that starts off asking, "Can I be a good writer if..." will never be a writer. Good writers know who they are. For them it is more a question of whether they can drag themselves out of their drunken stupor long enough to get it all down on paper.

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I agree with most answers. Passion for both comes hand in hand. Writing is more than just a passion for storytelling; it's a passion for grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure/variety, as well. The only way to truly internalized these concepts is reading books.

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I have contemplated a question similar to this which is: Can a person read "how to write" books and learn to write? I believe you can, if you read the right books. Now, what I believe you are actually asking is: Are there any shortcuts to learning to write well? You also seem to be asking this in light of the fact that you seem to also understand that learning to write well does require a lot of reading so you can see examples of good and bad writing.

Read Numerous Passages From Many Books

Well, I contemplated the same thing and discovered that if you read the right passages from a large number of books you can gain a lot of insight quickly. But who has compiled a large list of passages and provided commentary on the good and bad of those examples? Okay, well, here goes some gratuitous self promotion: My book, Fiction Writing Gems is available on amazon and provides exactly this from a large number of published books.

Survey Many Books

What it means is that you can read passages which are only around 250 - 300 words from published books and then learn why the passage was good or bad. You can then apply that learning to your own writing.

Library Staycation

I learned this while doing my own survey of 100 fiction novels at the local library. Have you ever read the first page of 100 novels in one sitting? It is both fascinating and nauseating. :) You can read my blog about that at: To Write Great, Get Jaded

I hope I've provided some new ideas for you.

  • At first, I was going to downvote this and point out that this doesn't allow one to understand the power of length: How being immersed in a world and its characters can become powerful because its work is not only good but persists for a time. (The power of trilogies at work!) But this answer also points out another way of looking at reading, something that's valuable in itself. – Neil Fein May 29 '16 at 17:22
  • @NeilFein Thanks for the comment. My point was that you can study short snippets and obtain a strong understanding even if you have a shorter attention span. It's interesting too that most people do not read an entire book to decide if they like it. That decision is usually made by looking at the title, cover, and 1 or 2 sentences. – raddevus May 30 '16 at 15:53
  • "That decision is usually made by looking at the title, cover, and 1 or 2 sentences." Do you have a source for that? – Neil Fein May 30 '16 at 19:53

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