Why Writers Must Be Readers First

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Reading

This is a DIY MFA Manifesto for Why Writers Must Be Readers First

One year ago, I heard Richard Nash (Publisher of Red Lemonade) give a fascinating talk about how writers have to be readers.  His argument was that reading and writing are the opposite sides of the same interaction.  I remember thinking: OMG did he read my mind?  This is exactly the sort of stuff I’ve been obsessing over ever since I started DIY MFA.  In fact, after hearing Nash speak, I am completely convinced that reading can, in fact, change the world.

Some time ago, I posed the following statements for discussion among my writer friends.

Writing is the ultimate form of manipulation.

Reading is the supreme act of defiance.

Some people got the writing part of the equation right away.  When we write, we can control the words and how we express them to guide the reader in whatever direction we choose.  Writing–if you really think about it–is no more than a few inky scribbles on a page.  Lines and dots.  But if we’re strategic in how we use those lines and dots, we can actually put ideas into our reader’s head.  We can direct and manipulate what our reader imagines and how our reader responds.  Richard Nash had a great analogy for this concept in his talk: “Our words are hours that we can take up inside someone’s head.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a powerful thing (and not a privilege to be taken lightly).

But what about the reading part?  How can reading be an act of defiance?  Some people might read to get the information or to figure what the author’s trying to say, and that’s fine.  But the moment you realize that everything the writer’s doing with his words is essentially an act of manipulation–a way of taking up real estate inside your brain–then you can start reading like a revolutionary.  All it takes is awareness, knowing that the writer’s doing some slight of hand tricks and is trying to direct your mind this way or that.  Once you’re aware of this manipulation, you can step back and decide if you actually want to be directed.

And as soon as you do that, you’ve become a rebel.  You’re fighting the machine.  You’re Reading.

And how, exactly, can Reading change the world?  That’s easy.  One of the biggest problems I see with the world is that everyone out there is trying to be a writer.  Everyone’s got an agenda; they’re trying to use their words and take up mental real estate and get people to listen to what they have to say.  The problem is, very few people out there put effort into Reading-with-a-capital-R.

I totally get why that happens, though.  Reading like that can be exhausting, sort of like watching a magic show and constantly trying to figure out how the magician pulled off the last trick. Our world is so saturated with information that it would be impossible to read like a revolutionary all the time.  We’d all lose our minds.  The trouble is, a lot of people have stopped Reading all together.  They just accept the information they see at face value and move on to the next thing.  I call this voluntary illiteracy.  Sure, they can read the lines and dots on the page, but are they really READING the meaning behind those scribbles?

In the end, Nash’s speech came down to one important point: “Writing and reading are behaviors.  Most people do both.”  I agree completely and would add only one thing:  To change the world, we need to do both and do them responsibly.

I thank you all for the privilege of letting me take up a small slice of your mental real estate.  Now go out there and do something amazing with your words.

Now I turn this question to all of you:

Do you see yourself first as a writer or a reader?  Do you think it’s possible to be one without also being the other?

  • Fantastic post, Gabriela! I don’t believe that one can write effectively if not well read. Writing is more than just words, it is a mind set involving a complex and visceral structure. Just winging it isn’t going to produce anything of value any more than throwing all the ingredients in a pan will cause a pizza to appear. The two activities are symbiotic in my estimation, like reading a recipe and creating dinner from it.

  • Gabriela

    Love your analogy! When I first started thinking about this idea of reading-to-change-the-world, it really hit home how in an age where there is so much information readily available, so few people actually *think* about what they read. There is a big difference between having information available and understanding it. Sort of the same way you can have a fridge full of food, but not necessarily have what you need to make that pizza, no matter how many ingredients you toss into that pan. 🙂

  • I see myself as both. I don’t understand writers who don’t read!

  • Excellent post,Gabi. I’ve always loved to read and was a reader before becoming a writer. I have found myself reading with new eyes since becoming a writer. Now I not only read for enjoyment but also to learn how to be a better writer.

  • I struggle with making time for reading—well, outside of the addictive atmosphere of the web. Reading the internet IS reading, but it’s usually short-form and doesn’t provide the depth of experience that books do.

    As a writer, I get a lot more out of books than I used to. I’m more alert to how their worlds are being crafted, what techniques are being used, and all the other writerly things. I think that makes me a better writer, but it may not make me a better reader. I wonder if I look too much at the writerly aspects of the novels I read when I should be looking for something readerly.

    • Gabriela

      London — don’t be too hard on yourself. Reading is reading and whether you’re reading with your “writing hat” on or are just reading for fun, what’s important is that you’re reading. I would just advise changing things up a bit if you find yourself in a reading rut. If you’re always a reading on the web, look for something thats longer form to inspire you.

  • Audiobooks are great if you have little reading time. I use them during my commute, so even on the days when I’m super busy and get home too tired to pick up a book or type away at my novel, I’m still exposed to literature for 1 1/2 hours!

    • Gabriela

      Great point! I love reading on my commutes (though living in the city means more commutes via public transit). I’m a big fan of the Kindle for reading in public. Not only do people not see the cover of what you’re reading (useful if the book you’re reading has a cheesy cover) but you can turn pages at the touch of a button so even in crowded rush hour subways you can read. Audiobooks are great for car trips and I always like to invest in a few good ones for family road trips!

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  • Great post, thanks! I think I started writing because of my active engagement with reading. I have always been a reader, and always will be – I love losing myself in a book, not thinking about it. But somewhere along the line I also became a Reader (to use your term), I wanted to be more involved from the beginning, at the writing stage.

  • Amy

    Such a great article, and a point that needs to be reinforced over and over again. Also, I totally agree with your concept of “voluntary illiteracy”– I’ve noticed this myself– people taking anything they read at face value, and swallowing it whole without applying any critical thinking skills whatsoever. Writing can be manipulative, there ARE tricks used, and beyond applications for fiction writers, this is something I talk to with everyone about– whether or not they are a reader or writer– even if someone just watches the evening news, some of the same rhetorical techniques used in writing are also used there.

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