Struggling with Reading While Writing

More common than you probably think!

Today’s question: I was wondering about reading and writing and how they connect with inspiration. I'm easily swayed by what I'm reading and enjoying, and I actually find it a bit of a burden. I know some people absorb all books in the area they're writing in for the mood, but I'll actively avoid things that are in a similar group/sub genre while WIPing [editor’s note: “work in progress”] and I get torn a lot because I'll read something and I'm like YES I WANT TO WRITE A BOOK WITH EXPLOSIONS AND PIZZACAT DETECTIVES and then NO, I WANT SOMETHING DEEPLY LYRICAL AND MOVING and then something else, and so on and so on, until my head explodes.

First of all, I want to read a book about pizzacat detectives.

I also have trouble with this, Reader. And I struggle with other things when reading — not being able to turn off my inner editor, reading starting to feel like work rather than pleasure, that part of my brain already feeling “spent” by writing and not being able to keep up the attention span…

So here’s the first confession:

It’s not actually unusual for professional writers to bemoan how little reading they do.

Some professional writers read a lot — kind of as you’d expect. But I also can’t count how many conversations I’ve had with other pro writers in which we shamefacedly confess to each other how hard reading has become, either temporarily or for a longer while, for one reason or another. Most of us grew up reading, so this is an unhappy state. But it’s also not terribly rare. So if, for any reason, you’re having trouble reading as you write? You’re not alone. And try to give yourself a break.

I know this flies in the face of a lot of writing advice out there, which declares that if you write, then you have to be reading. Some of that advice goes further, repeating conventional wisdom that reading contemporary books within your genre and category is good for keeping up with the field and therefore everyone should be doing it.

Which I don’t disagree with — to a point. If you have no trouble doing this, that’s awesome, and I’m envious! But also, sometimes, a thing has to give in order for someone’s process to work. And most writers have been reading their whole lives, so it’s rarely the case that a writer is coming in with stark unfamiliarity with the field — that earlier reading was already hours and hours poured into your writing education. It’s all right not to be able to keep up that same rate anymore.

So while I think it’s good not to be completely ignorant of what’s going on in the field currently, I’m also for reducing shame for not reading as much as we might like to or feel we should be.

Now Reader, it sounds like your question is less about not reading, and more about how much that reading affects your writing. But I think the answer here can draw from some of the same thoughts — that is, you alluded to how you avoid the genre or category you’re writing in. And if this works for you, I think it’s a perfect solution! As discussed above, try not to judge yourself for deciding not to read in some way… in this case deciding not to read within your genre for a while. As long as you’re coming in with genre familiarity and your touchstones aren’t only from the 1950s, I think you’re fine.

And you’re actually not the only writer I know who purposely reads outside their genre when they’ve got a work in progress going, for exactly the same reasons. So I don’t even think it’s rare!

In other words, if this is a good solution for you, I say go for it, problem solved. But if you’re still struggling with reading impacting your writing even when you’re outside your genre, here are some other things you can experiment with:

  • Reading in a different way (for instance, if you’re someone who processes audio differently, listening to books might help filter these feelings, or reading on paper might help create difference from when you’re on a computer)

  • Reading nonfiction (this is helpful to me)

  • Reading different lengths, such as short stories when you’re working on a novel

  • Reading other forms, such as poetry, plays, or essays

  • Reading in another language than you’re writing in, if you’re multilingual (this is another thing I do)

  • Decreasing your reading wholesale while you’re in the middle of a project, unless that makes you unhappy

  • Arranging your reading time versus writing time so you’re always writing after you’ve had an effective palate cleanser — for instance, if a good night’s sleep helps your brain wipe the slate clean, you might arrange things so you’re writing in the morning before any other author’s words can distract you

  • Reading books that are very far from you in style or ideas — the ones you feel like you could never write but enjoy as a reader

  • Or, reading books that are very close to your own style, so that seeing the other author’s voice doesn’t start to pull you away from your own.

I hope some of these ideas are helpful to you! And whatever you choose, please don’t judge yourself for not reading in your genre every single minute. It’s really okay not to put yourself in a pressure cooker over that, and more writers than you’d think struggle with reading as much as we feel we “should,” for one reason or another.

Try to find something that lets you read in a way that makes you happy, and then run with it.