An Open Challenge of the Writing Advice to “Read a lot”

Burn It Down: A Series of Unfortunate Writing Advice(s)

Welcome to the first installment of an unproven writer submitting an unsolicited challenge against the most popular writing advice, so you can make a call on whether or not I’m out of my mind!

Our first piece of advice: “Read a lot, and write a lot”

I know what you’re thinking. This guy must be out of his ever loving mind coming for Stephen King, and you’re probably right, I am.

However, let me make something clear. I’m not challenging Stephen King’s prowess as a writer obviously the guy knows what he’s doing. I also don’t challenge his intent behind this piece of advice. Where this really comes off the rails is how it’s used as a sagely piece of wisdom for many new writers to follow due the the authority attached to it, only to ultimately have them ending up feeling disenfranchised with the whole process.

*cough, cough, ME!*

My aim with this series is two fold:
One, to help new writers really contextualize this advice and put it to use.

Two, help writers who have taken this advice to heart and left their writing in a shallow grave, to come back to it with new fervor.

In Challenge of the Advice

Here’s the major flaw in this piece of advice.

Read how much, exactly?

Will 50 books be enough, 100, 1000? Does the 10,000 hours to mastery rule apply here?

Don’t come with the universal cop out either, that it’s “dependent on each person”. I’m no savant of marketing, but I know a disclaimer statement when I see one.

Here’s the tea, reading for reading’s sake will not make you a good writer no matter how much you do it. The same as watching The World Series won’t by nature make you a home run hitter, or watching Criterion Collection movies won’t make you an Emmy award winning director.

The flaw boils down to this, it’s just a little to simple. It leaves out the necessary bridge between the two activities that may actually make it work. It’s like having a power source and a light source but never putting them together, you’re just going to end up in darkness if there’s no cord to connect them.

Implication of the Advice

What this advice ultimately does is imply that by some measure of osmosis you’ll suddenly click into being a New York Times Bestselling author like those books you’re reading.

I’ll even give the advice the “learning by osmosis” benefit, and in this regard allow the “every person is different” disclaimer. With this in mind the question still remains, how long will it take you to become solvent? How many people will achieve transcendence and not be stuck in the mortal realm?

Learning is an active process something that you engage in, assess, and experiment with. Storytelling has been around for arguably as long as humans have existed. Doing it well is not a mystical, magical, or subliminal process.

I find the learning through osmosis angle of this to be one that leaves writing a good story dependent on far too much luck and even some measure of fate. I don’t know about you but I’m not so interested in being one of the lucky few. I’m far more interested in putting in the work to be a maestro or words. Besides, there’s already enough luck involved in the process of getting published… we don’t need to flood our writing process with it.

Phoenix Rising: “Read a lot, and write a lot”

If you’ve come this far, thanks for reading!

I’m hopeful what comes next will start you on a path of not only maintaining the feelings of nobility around what writing means to you, but also give you some appreciation for what I refer to as the Craft of Writing. The craft being all the little bits of monotony that moves us through the creative process, the work of the work to make stories work.

What’s missing from this advice is what I refer to as “structure” I put this in quotations because it’s possible structure means something different for you. What I refer to when I say this is the literal progression that happens in a story which leads to a satisfying end.

My article “The 5 Disciplines of the Craft of Writing” is one such structure for which I’ve made an assessment. It’s not the only structure that exists within the craft, truly any individual element such as Tension can have it’s own structure across genres, authors, or even books.

Get a look at the 5 Disciplines and sneak peeks of other structures here:

With structure in mind, this advice now becomes…

Read to assess structure, then write to understand it.

Admittedly it’s not as pithy, but I believe it is more complete and has led me down a much less self-judgmental relationship with writing. Where before I would chide myself for “just not getting it”, or it “not being meant to be” I understand that I can learn and grow through the dedication of my own efforts.

Lastly, on the topic of reading. You may be amazed to learn there are four documented levels of reading. Outside of school few of us ever go past the first level. Indeed if you only read a book once, no matter how immersed you are in the experience you’re likely only scratching the surface of the second level.

I would encourage anyone who is interested in writing stories to pick up the book “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren.

It may sound ridiculous to read a book on how to read a book but if you are going to truly learn from reading and not just be entertained, this might be the most important book you ever buy.

Fantasy Writer, Marketing Professional, Ex-Game Industry & Self-Help, here to lift up fellow writers and share insights about the craft of writing.

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