When I took music lessons in college, I spent about a quarter of my designated practice time every single week listening to other vocalists sing instead of exercising my own voice.
It wasn’t by choice — at first. In fact, when my instructors first gave me “listening assignments,” I (very briefly) considered blowing them off. What was the point? I was (still am) an active learner. I wanted to sing (the active phase) not listen (the passive phase).
Of course I did them anyway, like the good B+ student I was. It didn’t take me very long to figure out why spending so much time analyzing other artists’ work made me a better singer.
When you dedicate a fraction of your time to studying the work of those you admire, you learn to mimic the techniques that awe and inspire you. And once you’re able to do that, you start to figure out how to take those mirror images and shape them into pieces of your own personal style.
The same principles my voice instructors taught me also apply to writing. The same way you cannot sing without listening to others sing, you cannot write without reading others’ writings.
Is the active phase of writing — actually sitting down to write — still the most important part of getting from “want to write” to “writing for a living”? Absolutely. Writers write. No argument there.
But the best writers in the world also read. They read not only to pass the time, but also to study. To learn. To develop their own styles and find their literary voices.
They don’t see reading as a waste of time. Neither should anyone who wants to take their writing to the next level.
Every writer, whether they realize it or not, models their work off of one or several of their favorite writers. For me, it was Meg Cabot (Princess Diaries) and Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak). I don’t write like either of them. I don’t try to. I read their books to learn what their words could teach me, and then I went off and, over a span of years, wrote until I found my voice.
You can, too.
You don’t have to limit your study to just one or two people, though you can, if you want to focus your attention on only so many styles at once. The most important thing is to figure out who you love to read, what you love about their work, and how you can use those examples as inspiration to create your own masterpieces.
If you’re not reading, you’re missing out.
And “reading” doesn’t even refer specifically to books. Some people can’t stand books, and that’s fine. There are comics. Articles. Essays. Poems. Though you should generally try to read within the genre and format you want to write in as much as possible, a story is a story. Inspiration comes in all forms. Just don’t ignore the lessons others’ work have to teach you.
Most important of all, though, is to enjoy yourself. Make the most of it. Sometimes, it’s like homework — but it shouldn’t always be. Make it fun. Remember where you’re going. Keep your eye on that endpoint. Along the way, balance your work with play. Do great things, as so many before you already have.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.