Reading: It's Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

From Writer's Relief staff:

We at Writer’s Relief recently had to change our rejection letters. Our old letter was polite, encouraging, and (okay—we must admit) functionally generic. But the newest letter has a note that we find ourselves using more and more. It says, in not so many words, “We recommend that you do a bit more reading in your genre.”

Is it just us? Or does it sometimes seem like increasing numbers of people are writing without actually reading?

Occasionally, we receive submissions from college students who are writing flat, sing-song poetry because that’s what their teachers told them poetry is. They haven’t yet realized that there’s a whole world of rich, adult, modern poetry out there for consumption.

We totally understand; it’s why we added the “read more” line to some of our letters—to encourage new writers to do just that. Some writers quite innocently have not yet realized how important it is to read.

We always respect a writer’s effort and the act of self-expression. That’s what makes writing great. But when it comes to writers who are trying to make a name for themselves and have been at it for quite a while, it blows our mind when we get submissions that aren’t even remotely close to what is appropriate for the genre (aka what’s being published). Some examples:

  • A retired doctor wants us to target “I’m sad that we broke up” poetry (in clunky iambic pentameter) to high-end literary journals. (Problem: Few well-known lit mags are publishing rhyme these days, and they’re almost never publishing “love is a special thing/it makes me want to sing” types of ditties). Learn more: Poetry Turnoffs; Styles and Formatting That Make Editors Cringe.

  • A biologist wants us to research literary agents for her mainstream women’s fiction novel that is 305,000-words long. (Problem: 305K isn’t one book; it’s three.)
  • A writer who is penning short, journalistic reflections about modern life or current events wants us to pitch them as creative nonfiction. (Problem: Blogs or newspapers might be a better choice.)
  • We can’t help but wonder: If the above fictional writers had been actually reading in their genres, wouldn’t they have taken steps to rev up their craft, increase marketability, and ensure that their work will be taken seriously?

    We ask you: Why—oh why—would a writer skip the fundamental step of reading before putting pen to paper?

    Here’s what Stephen King has to say about reading: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

    Our feeling: If a person is hoping to be a professional writer (in any genre), it’s important to also be a professional reader (as opposed to a person who reads only for fun when the mood strikes).

    We’re not talking about a book a month. We’re talking about reading that is insatiable, voracious, consistent, even scheduled. In the same way that a healthy body needs a steady, healthy diet, writers need a steady, careful diet of good reading. There’s a direct correlation between how strong a project is and how much a writer reads (or how weak a project is and how little a writer reads).

    Reading brings a depth to poetry and prose that can’t be taught in a classroom or writing group. The best editor in the world can’t make a nonreader’s manuscript feel like it was written by a reader.

    What’s the relationship between your writing and your reading?

    a) I have a regular reading schedule of multiple books per month.
    b) I read as much as I can—but between work, kids, and writing, it’s not much more than a book or two per month.
    c) I’ve read really good books in the past. But my focus is on writing right now.
    d) I have a great idea for a project and a good idea of how to write it. I don’t need to read other people’s work because it won’t help me.
    f) I can’t read while I’m writing (and I’m writing all the time because I’m trying to make it as a writer, so I don’t read much at all).
    f) Other

    What’s your reading diet? Share your reading habits in the comments section (and yes, reading Huffington Post counts).

    Learn more about Writer’s Relief, an author’s submission service.

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