Have you ever set down a book for good because you found something in it you don’t like? If you want to write, I suggest that bad habit end now.
Why, you ask? Because everything you read—and I mean everything–has positive value for you as a writer. Stephen King, and any author worth his or her salt, is a huge advocate of writers reading massive amounts.
Again you ask, why? How can everything be useful? There are a number of reasons and I’ll cover as many as I can.
Reading bad literature teaches you about yourself and shows you what to avoid—or at least how not to do something—in your own work. If you run across something that you don’t like, stop and ask yourself why you don’t like it. Is it just a personal preference? Was it out of place or poorly executed? Does it contradict something from earlier? As soon as you figure out the “why” of something’s badness, you learn a little about yourself and your craft.
You could learn a preference you didn’t realize you had. That preference could have subconsciously translated into a writing “rule” in your head and you’ll be able to break down that silly association. With that out of the way, you’ll be able to expand and diversify your writing and make it more appealing to more people. Also, you’ll be able to focus on that preference and sharpen it to a keen edge, maybe resulting in a signature element in your writing.
You can learn new tricks for writing. If you notice wording or development that’s clunky, awkward, or confusing, you’ll know not to use that approach in your own writing. You’ll also have a better idea of how to do it yourself. By learning how something shouldn’t be done, you’re able to focus more on how it should be done. If you can figure out where, and even how, the mistake happened, you’ll walk away with a greater understanding of the writing craft.
Ultimately, you’re learning from the mistakes of others and the others of the world are far more numerous, and generate far more mistakes than you. You get a greater sampling of mistakes by looking at those everyone else makes. Everything you recognize that’s wrong in what you’re reading nudges you a little closer to the “right” path, whatever that is for you.
Reading good literature is just as beneficial, though in different ways. If you find something that’s particularly striking, stop and ask yourself why. The author clearly did something right and if you can identify what, you can learn from it.
You can learn to write more effectively. If you notice you’re having a reaction to something you’re reading without any apparent cause, stop and look back over what you’ve read. The answer’s there somewhere, tucked cleverly away. It could be the order the information’s being presented. It could be the author’s choice of wording. It could be something you’re reading into the text or even a slow accumulation of details coming to a head. No matter what it is, if you find it and like it, try to emulate it!
You can learn what works for you. If you like something in what you’re reading, it’s clearly been done right. Figure out what it is and how the author did it and do it yourself! You’ll learn about yourself and where your interests lie. You might even get a better idea of where you want your skill to go!
You can open your mind. No one knows everything and no one can conceive of all the ideas that humanity has come up with. Let what you’re reading open your mind to new possibilities that you wouldn’t have thought of before. Maybe you never considered that two protagonists, best friends for life, could have irreconcilable differences that split them up permanently. Maybe you never considered the effects of low or zero gravity on the bones and muscles of space-faring characters. Maybe you never considered letting cultural taboos have a dramatic effect on a story. No matter what it is, good literature is going to have ideas you wouldn’t have thought of before. Embrace that. The more you know and the more you take into consideration, the greater your writing is going to be.
No matter how good or bad something is, read it. Analyze it. It’ll probably take some time to get used to this, but the results are worth it. Trust me. Some of the greatest things to happen to my writing occurred when I read The Old Man and the Sea and The Darkest Night.