Sunday, November 21, 2010

The War Between Reading and Writing

By M.S. Spencer (Guest Blogger)

“Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be entertained as you watch two titans of the ring locked in an eternal struggle for your…er…time. In one corner feast your eyes on the Tome, masked in fancy vellum, costumed in elaborate prose, as big as the New York City Public Library. A fearsome foe indeed.” The emcee pointed toward the ropes, where a massive rectangle, his name in raised gold lettering across his chest, riffled his pages at the throng.

“And now I direct your attention to the other corner. Please give a cheer for Quill the mighty scribbler!” The audience turns to see a gangly welterweight stand up, his eyes streaming purple ink, his long thin fingers clenching and unclenching, clearly longing to wring the Tome’s neck.

Unfortunately, this kind of duel doesn’t draw in the big crowds (nor, sadly, the big bucks). It is usually fought alone, in a study, staring at the walls, out the window, at your fingernails…anything but at the page or the pad of paper. It is the conflict that has endured ever since one Cro-Magnon wanted to continue painting his wall epic while his companion pressed to go see what the neighbors put on their wall in case they could learn something from it. It is the abiding war between Reading and Writing.

Now you, Dear Reader, may not see it that way. I’ll bet you love to read (you’re reading this, aren’t you?). You spend hours of your day racing through paragraphs, flipping pages, humming as you go. You put off the book report or letter in order to get to that last page before supper. Then with a sigh you pick up pen and paper. Writing is the chore after the fun.

You, Dear Writer are another story. Perhaps you plod dutifully through the novel, always aware of the page you’re on, checking your watch, then closing the book with a happy sigh at the appointed time. You turn eagerly to the pad of paper. You prefer to create the sentences and the story, not have it thrust upon you.

Of course there are people who think both activities are equally enjoyable. But as a writer I often find myself torn between the two, unsure which should be the priority. Reading, as we all know, increases your vocabulary, your facility with language, your knowledge of the world and the human condition, in a way that writing in a cave will not (unless you’re a Cro-Magnon, but I think we’re beyond that, don’t you?). However, if you are a writer, putting words on paper is the immensely satisfying fulfillment of an internal necessity. I speak of the urge, on the one hand, to teach and to reach other human beings, and on the other, to create and to control the means to that end; in other words, the desire to produce something original that will affect the reader in a new and different way.

My fear is that too much reading interferes with this creative process. I know that sounds radical, even stupid, but hear me out. Every book, every author has a certain individual style. Every culture and era promotes a certain literary style. Shakespeare’s rhythmic prose is different from Jane Austen’s perfectly constructed sentences, in contrast to Anne Rice’s florid paragraphs-within-paragraphs. But if you are steeped in Shakespeare, how do you write a contemporary romance that doesn’t sound stilted? If your favorite author writes in two-word sentences and minimal dialogue, how do you write that lush erotic love scene? Do you adopt his style or ignore it?

Some might recommend using bits and pieces of other styles to perfect your own. It is natural, likely impossible, not to. Your writing is for better or for worse informed by the authors you’ve appreciated. But when you’re searching for your own voice you must be careful to keep those elements at arm’s length. So how do you train yourself to be aware when someone else’s voice starts creeping into your prose?

Simple. Stop reading while you’re writing. I hear you gulp, but think of it as a pause between lessons, a diet between the holidays if you will. A candy diet. You have to clear your mind of other writers’ styles in order to find your own. As long as the urge is strong to call your hero Mr. Darcy rather than “Fitzwilliam” (yes, that was his first name) or even Fitz, you can’t make your story your own. And readers are very sensitive to a style that isn’t owned. It is confusing and irritating. Besides, if you truly are a writer, you want to have your own voice. And I maintain that it is difficult for all but the most self-assured and seasoned of writers to find that voice if there are tenors singing in your head while you’re trying to pen music for a baritone.

When I was young I read voraciously. I loved biographies in particular, but I would pick up anything and read it, from Dostoievski to Joseph Conrad to Evelyn Waugh. Those years provided me with a voluminous internal library, making it easier to set the reading aside while I concentrate on my own skills. Writing is after all a profession like any other, to be practiced and honed separate from the words. A trial lawyer must have the precedents at his fingertips, but in the end he’ll have to fashion his own creative defense. A fullback studies the playbook, but at the snap he must go after the quarterback on his own. A mathematician could not create his own original theory without the multiplication tables he memorized earlier. Now that I’m writing professionally I have an obligation to do the same: to draw upon my internal library, yes, but ultimately to provide my own unique perspective on the world. Otherwise, why would any reader want to read me rather than Shakespeare

I’m sure other writers have their own means of balancing reading and writing as they work. For me, if I’ve been reading a lot, it takes a real leap to get back into my writing. I lose the thread of the story, the atmosphere I’ve worked hard to create. I have to clear my mind and focus on the characters, sometimes even reread a large portion of the story, before I can slip back into the world I was constructing before I dove into someone else’s. You can’t churn out those bestsellers if you have to keep stopping to regroup.

That’s my take on the war between the Tome and the Quill. I look forward very much to hearing thoughts from other readers and writers.


Although Meredith Ellsworth has traveled and lived in Chicago, Boston, Europe, South and Central America and the Middle East, the last 30 years have been spent in the Washington area as a librarian, Congressional staff assistant, speechwriter and editor. She worked for the U.S. Senate, for the Department of the Interior, and in several library systems, both public and academic.

Writing as M. S. Spencer, she has published two contemporary romance novels, Lost in His Arms and Lost and Found, both bestsellers at ( ). She has two wonderful children, Spencer and Emma.

Book Information and Purchase Links:

Lost in His Arms, by M. S. Spencer

Contemporary Romance, Action/Adventure; M/F; 3 flames

Lost & Found, by M. S. Spencer

Contemporary Romance, Action/Adventure; M/F; 3 flames

Contact M. S. Spencer:



Facebook Author Page

Amazon Author Page

All Romance E Books Author Page


Debby said...

I imagine it is tough to find a balance between the two. As an artisit that uses words as the medium, you do apprecitate another artist's work. Great post. debby236 at att dot net

Colleen said...

As a reader, I do try to squeeze in as much time as possible to enjoy the book I am reading... I thank all those that take the time to place their stories out there for us the readers to enjoy!
Enjoyed reading your post!!!

Tina Donahue said...

Good post, Meredith. For myself, I treat writing as I would a job. I have a set number of pages to finish each day and I finish them. I don't go to bed until I do and, believe me, I enjoy my sleep. :)

As to voice: Beginning writers shouldn't copy anyone's style. That only makes it harder for them to find their own. Keep writing and your voice emerges. It's as simple - and as difficult - as that. :)

Nina Pierce said...

I know lots of writers who don't read in the genre they're writing. But I read all the time. I would be lost without a book. I carry one everywhere I go. When I sit to write I don't hear other words. I don't have the cadence of other writers. My words bleed onto the page in the same slow drip regardless of the genre on my bedstand. *g*

Great post.

M. S. Spencer said...

Thanks everyone for your interesting comments--it is a subject worth discussing! Tina--I know you're MUCH more disciplined than I & I'm awfully jealous. But since I only started writing professionally recently my "voice" has had lots of time to find itself! And at my age I find I'm pretty satisfied with it. Young writers may be tempted to adopt a favorite writer's style--perhaps that's when too much reading can be detrimental? NIna, I LOVE your word picture!

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

I agree. When I'm writing, with very few exceptions, I only read nonfiction. I need to stay true to my own voice and I hope to avoid ever being derivative.

Anonymous said...

Great post and an age old dilemma for writers. To avoid being overly influenced by another writer's work while I'm working on a piece, I read small bites from another author and comment on them in my journal. That way I keep reading and writing with more emphasis on one or the other. I regularly set aside reading breaks and spend more time reading than writing then switch to writing more than reading when I can. Commenting in my journal seems to keep the other writer's voice out of my work because I've "discussed" it with myself. Make sense? It works for me. Nice post.

M. S. Spencer said...

Really fascinating comments! Thanks everyone. Lizarnoldbooks: what a great idea. I don't usually write about books I'm reading in my journal--that tends to be either whining about my nonexistent love life or politics. I'll try your method. Part of why I wrote this blog was to assuage my guilt over not reading as much as I think I should--now I feel better!

Lisa L. Leibow said...

Even when attempting to read for pleasure, I often get caught up in the craft, examining a narrative technique, plot device, or lingering on a beautiful turn of phrase. My writer-side sneaks in even when I try to lock it out for a while!

Fedora said...

That's an interesting dichotomy, M.S.--I don't write, but can see how reading and writing would pull you in opposite directions sometimes! I like Lizarnoldbooks' suggestion, too--sounds like a smart way of taking the best of both!

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