How Can You Do the Thing if You Don’t Know How to Do the Thing?

Huntington Library and Gardens, statue, blindfold

I came across a quote from Stephen King, something he probably tossed off in an interview:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.”

It’s true and it’s necessary. If you want to write, you’ve got to read.

Here’s why (though I shouldn’t have to explain): if you don’t read you won’t know language, grammar, punctuation or, most fundamentally, story itself.

I teach story structure, and I once had a student who struggled with an ambitious adventure story. Beyond what we were doing in class, I recommended that he read other adventure stories to get an idea of how they work, or don’t work. Ludlum. Le Carre. Even real-life adventures, or mysteries.

“I don’t like to read,” he said.

I’m sure I remained calm on the outside but my inner jaw dropped. (Let’s pause to picture that.) Why would you want to write if you don’t want to read?

Yet I’ve heard this more than once. Some people want to be writers without being readers. Could you be a movie actor without ever having seen a film? Could you play in an orchestra without ever having heard a symphony? You might become a TV writer without reading classic novels, but you’ll still have to read piles of scripts, watch a lot of shows, dissect the structure of their stories, and understand the medium.

It is fundamentally human to want stories to deliver certain things. How will you know what those things are if you don’t read stories that have them?

There are a million writing courses, and you should take as many as you can. Your results will vary, and you’ll pick and choose from each teacher. But no matter what you learn in class, you have got to read whatever you can get your hands on.

#Huntington Library and Gardens#John Le Carre#reading#Robert Ludlum#Stephen King#story structure#writing


  1. William Kendall - August 26, 2016 @ 12:36

    It baffles me that a would be writer doesn’t like to read.

    That applies to anyone who doesn’t like to read.

    • Petrea - August 26, 2016 @ 13:59

      It is baffling, yes. I’ve also met young people who wanted to work in the voice acting business but they didn’t want to study voice or acting. Art is a tough business.

  2. chris - August 26, 2016 @ 14:08

    @Petrea–maybe they didn’t want to study voice or acting because they thought it wasn’t necessary or they assumed it was easy? My adult kids are millennials and sometimes they think that they may not need a pre requisite in order to do things…I am sure my generation (at that age) thought that we could do anything.. It takes experience w/age to realize that things in life doesn’t come easy.

    • Petrea - August 26, 2016 @ 14:14

      That’s absolutely the reason. It surprises me; I couldn’t wait to take acting and voice classes and get my creative writing degree, and still it’s not easy. But I’ve heard this from adults of all ages, it’s not just young people.

  3. John Sandel - August 26, 2016 @ 14:53

    It’s one thing to jump into writing without reading much first … but someone with high standards, if they pay attention, will eventually notice the culture bubbling up, unsummoned, in their work. Novices especially are porous to what they’ve absorbed unconsciously, over the years. (This goes for family narratives as well as for those from the general memetic culture.) Yet how to exorcise others’ undue influence over tone or style—even content?

    The best way is to become expert in the form (genre, style, whatever) of choice. Read all you can, if only as a defensive move. Read to wake up your culturally derived unconscious, the better to ward off others’ voices. Wake up from the history of art—know the other practitioners’ work so that among the overweening teeming meemies you can find yourself.

    Then you have a fingerhold on something original.
    Then maybe you can astonish me.

    • Petrea - August 26, 2016 @ 15:35

      This, from my best-ever writing teacher.

  4. chris - August 26, 2016 @ 16:40

    Wow! what John has said is key for sure… Need more experienced and insightful folks like him teaching those that think its so easy. Nothing worth achieving is easy.

  5. Lowell - August 27, 2016 @ 05:59

    You are so right. I began reading as a child and never stopped. My wife taught English and was always surprised that I seemed to know the elements of grammar, for example, but couldn’t tell her how or why. It all came from reading everything in sight.

    Well, then I found Playboy, and always bought it for the articles. Just kidding!

    • Petrea - August 27, 2016 @ 12:01

      Hey, as long as the editing’s good, it’s still edifying, right?

  6. magiceye - August 27, 2016 @ 21:46

    Why would a writer not want to read? Scared of inspiration? Or maybe a form of insecurity.

    In response to your query on my post – Yes people do get hurt. Now there is a move to restrict the height of the pyramid and also an age limit for the participants.

    • Petrea - August 28, 2016 @ 15:36

      Thanks, Deepak, I saw the response on your blog. I echo Lowell’s sentiments (I usually agree with him!). It’s too bad a few people have ruined it for others.

  7. Bellis - August 30, 2016 @ 02:34

    John expressed so well my thoughts about the “dangers” of reading too many books similar to the kind one would want to write. My subconscious has a habit of sneaking things I’ve read into my conscious, so that I perceive them as original thoughts. Imagine being accused of unknowing plagiarism! However, I can’t imagine a non-reader wanting to write a book for others to read. I learned all my grammar and vocabulary from reading, starting with cereal packs on the breakfast table.

    • Petrea - August 30, 2016 @ 08:00

      I started with a library card and an English teacher mother. Doesn’t matter how one comes to it.

      Some don’t want to learn the “rules.” I think you have to know them before you can break them, which sounds cliche but isn’t. I picture a great athlete, like Michael Jordan. As a pro he probably never once had to think about what he was doing, he just did it. Yet starting out, he had to learn how, had to learn the rules of basketball. Once he knew them in his bones, he could just play and be a joy to watch.

  8. John Sandel - August 30, 2016 @ 10:40

    Bellis, you’re thinking like a scientist, where facts are critical. But what in science is plagiarism can be, in art, mere appropriation—an ancient source of new art. (Counterfeiting, e.g.) It’s another example of how science—which is ideally objective—and art—ideally subjective—are counterparts, which enrich our lives from utterly opposed directions.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, ’til the advent of modern science, our culture was largely (if unconsciously) founded on and informed by art—e.g., the fantasies & poetries of religion. Only recently—by, say, the mid-18th century—have we balanced our genius for narrative with a real system for discovering & making use of facts (empiricism). So our era, with a material culture transformed by the facts of scientific discovery, can make art seem subject to the same dynamics.

    But art is only tangentially about facts or truth—it’s far more primordial than that. Art’s central imperative is “freedom,” which inverts the modern social compact. That’s its principal value: implicit revolution of at least the individual. Hence the greater danger to an artist is not ethical (as copying would pose, in a factual pursuit), but moral (personal). If my indivisible drive is to express myself uniquely, my first obligation is to shake myself loose of the culture-at-large. That’s the source of the dithyramb—which has curdled, in our time, to the artist manqué.

    There can be no rules in art; only repeated discoveries. There’s absolutely no incumbency on a writer to have ever read a word of what’s gone before, except as an expedient to arriving at her own voice more purely and quickly. It’s entirely a function of the artist’s individual prerogative to stay abreast of other art. Even a work created in a cultural vacuum has a shot at becoming a masterpiece.

  9. Bellis - September 1, 2016 @ 04:30

    A written-without-rules book, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride won the UK Women’s Prize for Fiction last year. No publisher accepted it for years, but it’s now lauded by literary critics. I don’t think a lot of “ordinary” readers bought it. In fact, I’ve not enjoyed many of the books that have won literary prizes recently. Maybe the judges, who must read a lot of books, are searching for new experiences, but they’re not helping those of us wanting to enjoy a good novel.

    • Petrea - September 1, 2016 @ 14:03

      I don’t know if there’s a rule to it. Per Petterson, who wrote Out Stealing Horses, says he wrote it in a stream-of-consciousness way, without much planning. It may be true, and it’s a lovely book. He does follow the rules of grammar, however, and thank goodness because bad grammar and poor editing make me stumble and take me out of the story.

      I’ve loved some recent Pulitzer winners. All the Light We Cannot See, Olive Kitteridge, Gilead, and Empire Falls are all terrific. I’m finishing The Goldfinch, enthralled by it, and about to take on The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Why? Book club, or just what’s in the stack on my night stand.

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