Writers Who Don’t Read

(Still editing the speech I gave two weeks ago, on writing a book a year with a sentence a day.)

Step #5: Read 10 times as much as you write.

Somebody once said : if you want to write comic books, read popular novels, if you’re going to write popular novels, read bestsellers, if you want to write bestsellers, read classics. And if you want to write classics, choose your grandparents very carefully.

Who said that? Well, maybe it was me.

Anyway, Read 10 times as much as you want to write, and read one level up from your ambitions because if you eat steak, what comes out the other end? So if you start by eating crap, what do you think is going come out? There’s no nutrition left. Be ambitious.

Personally, that meant reading all of Shakespeare aloud, at the rate of one scene a day. I’ve done that three times, and it’s just great. Some of the parts I couldn’t tell you anything about because I was so close to the tree, I couldn’t see the forest. But read the best quality literature that you can still enjoy. Just do that.

Now, in terms of this program, what that really works out to, is read a short story every day. Just get a collection of really short, short stories, “Flash Fiction,” and just read them. One a day. That is a steady supply of mental nourishment.

Another thing to consider is that not all of that reading should be fiction.

Many of my readers are interested in writing science fiction. Okay. So, which of the sciences do you specialize in? What’s your specialty? Get one. It doesn’t take more than about 100 hours of studying to become a cocktail party expert in almost any field, to be able to talk to somebody who is a real expert and ask them intelligent questions. You can talk to anyone in any field if you can find an intelligent question to ask them.

All you have to do is empty your ego and ask something like: “well, who is the greatest expert in your field, and what is their position, and what it is they do?

You need to go WIDE about knowledge in general, but DEEP on some specific arena. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is connect to human beings, or the world they live in. The world’s greatest expert on Yo-Yos will have a vast amount of information on history, warfare (they were originally weapons), physics, industrial materials, acquisition of physical skills, and on and on. GO DEEP. If you go deeply enough into the specific, you emerge into the universal.

And I remember one of my great teachers, Jerry Pournelle said that “once you’ve mastered anything, you know how to master anything else.”

Be a generalist, know a little bit about everything and everything about something. For me, it’s human mental and physical development. That’s the aspect of the sciences that I’m fascinated by. Meditation and hypnosis and neuro linguistic programming and yoga and Tai Chi and meditation and rhythmic motion and so forth. And anything that has to do with high level human performance, I’m fascinated by it, and I can break it down to any level of granularity, looking at it in terms of philosophy, history, biological or social evolution…whatever you like. Its what I love, and my work is infused with it.

Steve: What is your specialty?

Student: Behavior modification. I’m a therapist

Steve: Dear, well I would suggest that you go down that road. Absolutely. Ground that in the sciences, in the biofeedback and neuro feedback and stuff like this and make that your foundation. Figure, you are going to know more about that than any other writer in the world. And you are going to find some way to weave that into your stories, and inform that. You said you write Young Adult novels? Great. Young adults are wondering, what is it going to take for me to become an adult? I’m going to have to modify this, I’m going to have to learn this, I’m going to have to change this. You could help so many kids. That fear of stepping into the adult world, is such a real thing.


Alright. So, write a sentence a day, one to four short stories a month, finish and submit, don’t rewrite except to editorial request, read 10 times as much as you’re write. Books, magazines, whatever. It’s the word count, and the quality of the words that you want. It is being sure that you have a huge amount of input to drive that “sentence a day, to drive that step, one to four stories a month.”

Writer who don’t read are very much like people who are too busy driving to fill their gas tank. Or people say, “I’m afraid that my story is going to sound like somebody else’s work.” That’s what you want, people. That’s how learning begins. You learned how to walk and talk and ride a bicycle, everything else, by imitating the way other people did it. Is your ego so huge you believe you have to consciously avoid becoming as great as Dickens or Steinbeck or Butler?

But if you want a recipe for finding your own voice, here’s one:

Choose two different writers who are very different. Writer A, writer B, okay? Write one story imitating writer A. Write a second story, imitating writer B. Write a third story, imitating the way writer A would imitate writer B. And a fourth story imitating the way writer B would imitate writer A, and by the time you’re finished with that you’re so neurologically confused, that it’s just going to be you. It’s easy, if you don’t try to reinvent the wheel. The “wheel” has already been invented, in the form of billions of words by writers better and wiser than either of us. Follow their path, and your way is clear.




Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts. www.lifewritingpodcast.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts. www.lifewritingpodcast.com.