One of the best known tips for writers is to be well-read. This has been said hundreds of ways by hundreds of authors, poets, and lecturers. Perhaps one of the best known variants comes from Stephen King:
““If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
This sounds like fantastic advice (because it is) but there’s an unfortunate truth that comes with it:
Many writers struggle to read for pleasure.
Why is this? Aren’t writers lovers of words? Wouldn’t they have a greater appreciation for their craft and the value of written storytelling?
Yes, but there’s more to it than that.
When I was in film school, one of my favorite faculty members was my cinematography teacher. This guy had worked on movie sets ranging from 1982’s The Thing to some of Jim Varney’s slapstick Ernest P. Worrel movies. On the first day of class, he gave us a warning:
“After we’re done with you, you’ll never be able to watch movies the same way again.”
I think that the same can be said for anyone who acquires any degree of professional knowledge on a subject. Whether it’s EMTs ruining medical dramas for their families or amateur guitarists always comparing themselves to YouTube shredders, there’s a tipping point when a person knows enough about a subject that their perspective is forever changed. They are no longer a layman. For better or worse, they speak the language.
When professional writers try to read for pleasure, it’s almost impossible to turn off that editorial voice in our heads. Without even trying, we see spelling errors, plot holes, and telling instead of showing littered throughout everything from pulp fiction to literary classics. We can’t help it. We’ve trained our brains, and now we can’t unlearn lessons we’ve spent years to internalize.
So what can a writer do when they just want to read for fun?
My personal solution to reading for pleasure is only reading what I want to read, which is harder than it sounds. As an author, freelance editor, and creative writing instructor, I’m constantly being given reading recommendations. Sometimes they even come with built-in imposter syndrome bait:
“You write steampunk? Then you have to read this!”
“How can you teach world building if you haven’t read my favorite fantasy novel?!”
“This is definitely required reading for someone like you.”
Even setting aside the social pressure aspect of these recommendations, I probably wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy them. I’d be studying them, analyzing what worked and what didn’t, trying to figure out how to apply these lessons to my own craft. That’s not reading for pleasure. That’s still working.
So when I read for pleasure, I ignore recommendations. I also ignore my “comps” list and the biggest bestsellers in my genre. Instead, I browse the library or book store, looking for books that interest me as a person. After all, I am more than a writer within my own little niche. I have other interests and aspects of my personality.
When I read for fun, I find that I read a lot of nonfiction humor books. I also devour graphic novels. Often I’ll experiment with the classics and modern fiction, while giving myself full permission to stop reading as soon as I lose interest in a title.
Sometimes, I accidentally learn something that will help my own writing, but I’m not looking to be taught. I’m just looking to relax and enjoy a good book.
As always, a big shout-out to the fantastic members of my Fan Community:
Randall Hodgson, Matthew Paxman, Yoshiyuki Nishikawa, Wil Sisney, Jarred Walton, and Joel Stanger.
If you’d like to learn more about my Fan Community, check out the following link: