You Are What You Read

We watch what we eat to keep our bodies healthy, but how many of us watch what we read to keep our writing in tip-top shape?

I struggle to understand how some writers can keep churning out work without doing much reading of their own. For me, reading gives me much-needed inspiration, teaches me what to do and not to do, and often brings me new insight on my current projects. Authors are, after all, idea-magpies: we steal the shiny to build our nests stories. But I didn’t fully realize just how much influence my reading choices have on my writing until a few days ago.

I recently finished reading Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy as part of my 100+ Reading Challenge. I hadn’t read a classic in a good while, and although it took a while to sink properly into the style of prose, I found myself ultimately enjoying its complexity (and often unnecessary prolixity).

My own writing is generally direct, unadorned; writing description is one of my weak points. But as I set aside Madding Crowd and took up my writing journal, my pen had a will of its own. Out poured longer sentences, unusual adjectives, descriptions of the minute. Oh, the voice was my own, but changed.

You know when you met a person who speaks English with a different accent from your own, and you really get along? Eventually Accomodation Theory kicks in and you start speaking like them, often without even realizing. That’s what I was doing, but in writing.

All of a sudden it made sense why, when blocked, reading my favourite stories of a similar genre would help me start writing again. I suppose I only conciously noticed it because Hardy’s writing is so different from my own as to make the changes obvious.

Of course, this has a downside: reading too much of one genre or style could not only suffocate my voice, but limit my creativity.

You are what you read. Like with food, watching what you read can be extremely beneficial. And, as with food, a healthy, balanced book diet will ensure you’re at your writing best.

How much attention do you pay to what you read?

6 thoughts on “You Are What You Read

  1. I pay a great amount of attention to what I read for exactly the reasons you stated. When I predominantly read pop fiction I find my description lacking with an abundance of cliches- can’t stand that. As a result of that I don’t read a lot of genre fiction anymore. I also stay away from a lot of classic British literature when I’m writing because I also pick up the rhythms and textures of the language there which is just bad when you’re writing something with a contemporary setting.

    Ultimately, unless I really need the comfort of an old favorite, I select books that will push me both as a reader and a writer.

    Good thoughts and thanks for the post!

    • Thanks – glad you enjoyed the post. :-)

      I think I read a lot of genre fiction because it’s so easy, and what with having a full-time job and keeping up my online serial, reading something that will push me feels like too much effort sometimes.

      I’m definitely going to try mix things up more often now, though!

      • Believe you, me, I feel the same way sometimes (wip, blog, query, serial, toddler wrangling). Some literary fiction is amazingly accessible (Interpreter of Maladies is great in that regard AND it’s a bunch of short stories!) without being cumbersome or dry. Unfortunately, I recently dove back into reading some old favorites and I think it’s addled my brains- certainly messed with my prose.

        Sorry for my previous reply. I can’t believe I didn’t reread that before submitting! My grammar isn’t usually THAT bad.

        When do you post updates on your serial? Would love to check it out!

        • I don’t even have toddler wrangling to deal with – you’re clearly made of tougher stuff than I!

          Never heard of Interpreter of Maladies – good?

          I’m actually reading something a little nerdy at the moment: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I don’t think non-fiction will influence my prose, though.

          And my serial is on a separate website – – which may be why you haven’t seen any updates! ;-)

          • I’ll be sure to check out your serial! Thanks for posting the link in the comment. :) Surest way to get my attention I admit.

            Interpreter of Maladies was a solidly good collection of short stories. The author, Jhumpa Lahiri (sp), has a full length novel out called “The Unaccustomed Earth” I’ve heard good things about as well- but I haven’t read it.

            It sounds like you do a tremendous amount of work so, please, let me just give you a pat on the back and say “Wow!” :D

            I enjoy your blog a great deal and, though I don’t always comment, I’ll be sure to lurk.

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