In his book On Writing
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two
things above all others: read a lot and write a
lot. There’s no way around these two things that
I’m aware of, no shortcuts.
“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through
seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction.”
Slow reader? Maybe, but his yearly total is
Mr. King’s advice is dead on, but it is probably
wasted on people who don’t already have the
reading habit. These are people who tell you they
love to read, but they just don’t have time. They
are going to read more when they get the time.
No, they’re not. They might as well quit kidding
Some of them might develop the reading habit if
they thought of reading as a pleasure, which it
is, and not as a duty.
Read what you enjoy, or read because you want to
learn something that interests you. Don’t worry
about reading what you think you should read, or
what other people think you should read.
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t enjoy books that
are supposed to be good for you. If you have to
force yourself to read, you won’t stick with it
long and you won’t get much out of it.
But sample all sorts of writing. Before
dismissing a book as boring, give it a chance.
Read a page or two or three. Good writing has a
way of drawing you in even when the subject never
interested you before.
If you read for pleasure, read a lot, you will
soak up writing lessons without trying. After a
while, though, you will find yourself noticing
the lessons—beginning to see how the writer
achieves the effects that make the story work.
This won’t lessen your pleasure; it will increase
Many books have more to give than you can get
from one reading. The classic example is Mark
Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. An adolescent
can read it as an adventure story. The same
reader can revisit the book with a more mature
understanding and discover that it is not only a
great adventure story, but also is a commentary
on slavery and human nature.
A lesser-known example is The Ballad of the
Flim-Flam Man by Guy Owen. It’s a novel about
a down-at-the-heels grifter and a young rube who
ramble across North Carolina working one small-
time swindle after another. You can read it as a
rollicking comedy, which it is. But if you read
it again, the novel will take you deeper and
deeper until the laughter becomes mixed with
sorrow and sympathy for the frailties of human
beings. (You know, don’t you, that sorrow and
pain are the wellsprings of much of our humor?)
One class of books is especially worth reading
again and again: guidebooks for writers. A writer
can read these for pleasure as well as for the
learning. If a book on writing well isn’t
pleasurable reading, it isn’t likely that the
author has much to teach you.
You can return to a book such as The Careful
Writer by Theodore Bernstein or On Writing
Well by William Zinsser and gain something
new every time. Here are some other writing books
that reward you every time you go back to them:
Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein; The
Book on Writing, by Paula LaRocque; The
Word, by Rene J. Cappon; The Writer’s
Art, by James J. Kilpatrick.
Some writers may scorn the recommendation to read
books on the craft. In The Language of the
Night, Ursula K. LeGuin says she doesn’t read
such books. I wouldn’t presume to argue the point
with her. Her success—she is one of our most
honored writers of science fiction and fantasy—
speaks for itself.
Most of us, though, including me, aren’t as smart
as she is. Books on the craft won’t infuse
creativity or make you an original thinker. They
can, however, help you learn the tools and
techniques you need and save you much effort. It
seems to me that so many writers struggle to
discover principles that were discovered long ago—
as far back as Aristotle. Some of that struggle