That is the question. In the March 2008 issue of The Writer, there is a pair of point and counter-point articles about whether or not you should read while writing. Michael Backus suggests that you should–positing that choosing material that’s germane to your story can be both inspiring (a great thing if you’re in a slump) and send you off in directions you might not have considered otherwise. There’s nothing that gets the creative juices flowing than reading good prose.
Noelle Sterne, on the other hand, warns against such reading, suggesting that you’re setting yourself up for a fall, both because you can lose your confidence (“I’ll never be that good.”) and because you may begin to unconsciously (or sometimes even consciously!) mimic the style of whoever you are reading. This is bad on a couple of different levels. Not only can such mimicry produce an unevenness in style and voice, you’re also being cheated of finding your own unique voice. It’s hard to hear your own voice through the veritable noise of someone else’s style–especially that of someone you admire.
I am kind of on the fence on this issue. More often than not I don’t read while I’m writing. I don’t have any particular objection to it, but I just flat don’t have time. On some levels I side with Sterne. You can tell when I’ve been reading–say–Jane Austen. My characters suddenly sound formal and use words that people simply don’t use in modern speech (mores the pity…I love language from that period). Another voice I’m guilty of falling into is chick lit snark, which has absolutely no place in my dark romantic suspense world! So I do have to be careful what I read, while I’m writing, if I manage to eek out the time. But I agree with Backus too. When I’m stuck on something in my plot–trying to see what comes next, how to construct a certain type of scene, or just getting into the right frame of mind–I often find it immensely helpful to read someone else’s well done example. I suppose it’s a sign of the health of my ego that I don’t normally descend into the “I’ll never be that good” doldrums. Mostly I find well written prose inspiring (and I’ve read enough not-well written prose to know that I’m better than quite a bit of what gets published to balance out any idol envy–see there? Perfectly healthy ego.). So I guess, depending on the circumstances, I agree with both of them. There is certainly such a thing as reading the wrong thing while writing, and I’d say that’s the bigger pitfall to watch out for. I think too, watching the wrong thing can be as big an issue. I don’t need to go watch something campy before I sit down to write about a body being discovered. I’d do better to immerse myself in the latest episode of NCIS or Women’s Murder Club (and now that the writer’s strike is over can we PLEASE have the latter back? I really want to know what happens with the Kiss Me Not Killer).
So weigh in writers! Do you read while you’re writing? Or do you not? Why?
Hmmm… I’d have to say I think reading, always reading, is the thing to do. And I think the choice of what one should read is probably something everyone has to figure out for herself. You might be surprised at the health of my ego when I say that, though occasionally I read something that makes me say- In a world where this exists, I shouldn’t be allowed to hold a pen, more often than not what I’m reading makes me think- Wow, someone got paid to write this? I should get back to work. Obviously I’m not reading a lot lately.
As for voice, this too, I think, is a matter of experience. I think everyone has been guilty of having their characters fall into Speak Like Jane Austen World, and Lord knows I have my moments of Speak Like It’s Buffy World. But, for the most part, I think maintaining your voice is more a matter of experience than what you’re reading. And I don’t mean experience as a published writer, but just time spent writing in your own voice. You know I’m a big fan of blogging for figuring that out. The more you’re used to sounding like you, the easier it is to sound like you when you’ve got a lot of someone else in your head.
Still, no matter how long you’ve talked like yourself, you still go off to Ireland or Austrailia, or Texas and end up sounding like someone else for a bit. It just happens. That’s what crit partners who aren’t reading what you’re reading are there for, right?