Reading While Writing

What's in YOUR head?

What’s in YOUR head?

Some writers say they can’t or won’t read books while working on a project, perhaps fearing they will be unduly influenced or their writing voice will suddenly mimic that of the other writer.

Do you think this is a legitimate concern or a form of literary germ phobia?

None of us is inside another person’s head (at least I hope not; it’s fraught with risk, not the least of which is tripping over an optic nerve). Aren’t we being arrogant when we claim to know what someone is thinking or experiencing?

In that case, I’ll stick with explaining why it doesn’t happen to me: One, I believe reading and writing are separate mental functions. I don’t have the brain scans to prove it (I sold my Magnetic Resonance Imager for cupcake money), but think about the line-in and line-out jacks on a home-theater system. If you plug your DVD player into the output, you won’t see anything. The signal is running in the wrong direction. You have to find the input.

When I’m reading, I’m receiving and processing the abstract symbols on the page into useful information, perhaps going “Oooh” and “Ahhh” when the writer makes me think about something in a new way. When I’m writing, it’s like I’m installing that home-theater system. I’m figuring out where the cables go so the story works when I plug it in. It’s passive acceptance vs. active imposition.

Two, if my writing voice easily wavers and bends to outside forces, then it’s not mature yet, and I’m not ready to compose a novel.

I actually prefer to read books while I write, for serendipity is a better writer than I am. Indeed, I coincidentally began reading something the same time I started my current project. The book was an academic work about teenage singers of the early 1960s and their impact on the civil rights movement. My novel is a brutal, post-apocalyptic survival story.

If, by the grace of Odin, my novel gets published someday, it’s safe to say these two titles will not share shelf space. But in the process of thinking about the ideas expressed in that book, a light bulb went on regarding the relationship between my two main characters. As my once nebulous concept starts to gel, I am discovering that that book is influencing the core theme of my story.

My writing voice has not gotten confused, nor have I decided to reset the tale in the 1960s and make the hero a doo-wop singer. I’m being influenced in a subtle, serendipitous way that I believe will make the story better. Perhaps if I’d read a different book, another theme would have emerged. But I didn’t read a different book, I read that one. So I’m going with it.

What about you? Can you read a book while working on a project? Can you chew gum while this is happening? Is someone living in your head and reading your thoughts?

Does it hurt?

♥ ♥ ♥    ♥ ♥ ♥    ♥ ♥ ♥    ♥ ♥ ♥    ♥ ♥ ♥    ♥ ♥ ♥

Man, I’m stuck in the ’80s lately with my song choices. Oh well. They wrote more relevant titles back then. Here’s one about writing books by Elvis Costello:

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41 responses to “Reading While Writing

  • nrhatch

    I’ve never felt a need to abstain from reading (or watching a movie) while in the midst of a writing project for fear of getting them muddled up . . . but I may read less due to my desire to “keep on writing.”

    Glad your reading led to a brain ping about your characters and theme ~ it’s like getting interest on your investment. 😀

    • ericjbaker

      I didn’t even pay for the book. It was a gift. Double score!

      Does “double score” mean anything? I’m trying to think a sports reference in which one point becomes two under special circumstances. Oh well. They can’t all be winners.

      • nrhatch

        In Beer Pong, if X scores, opponent Y has to drink. If Y drinks AND falls down drunk, that might be a double score. 😉

        In your case, you might be working on a triple score ~ enjoying reading a book, that was a gift, that improved your WIP. That’s a win-win-win!

  • Dave

    Yeah, I’ve got to agree with you on this one. I never have any problems reading and writing.

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  • Uzoma

    I like to take some time from my writing to read. This pause helps create new ideas in my head, and of course, gives me the impression that I’m doing something related and worthwhile when I’m going through writer’s block.

  • jdhoward

    I have a unique situation that one day I will definitely write a book about. The mind is quite capable of almost anything. It’s more intricate than a jack -in/jack-out. Or at least I can speak for myself. Of course, I’m not an accomplished writer, either… not yet.

    • ericjbaker

      So you are just going to leave an intriguing comment and not tell us what you meant?

      Hmmm. Now I want to know about your unique situation! I haven’t even heard the hook yet, so that’s pretty good.

      • jdhoward

        Hey, I’m sorry, I should have been straightforward like everyone else and just answered the question. I started to just pass it up, but I couldn’t help but say something since it hits a bit at the core of my being. I guess I can be a little less vague: If we were all standing in a room, y’all would kick me out.

  • Cheryl

    I think it depends upon what you’re reading/writing. I’m working on a memoir and it’s easy, perhaps because it’s in first person, to pick up another writer’s voice when I read another memoir. I don’t have that problem if I’m reading any other genre, though. Thanks for your post!

  • M.L.Hall

    I’ve heard the same thing in interviews with published writers who say they can’t read and write. I love to read and like you I think it is helpful. Especially when I’m outlining. Sometimes and idea might pop up in a book i’m reading and inspire me to fix a problem i’m haveing with plot. The only detriment i have experienced with reading while actually trying to write prose is that the experience sometimes gets in the way. Meaning that I become to engaged in reading and don’t write! LOL. Yeah, I sometimes struggle with focus issues!

  • brianhmoll

    Unless you have two brains, your thought processes are shaped by the input your brain receives. And the way you think shapes the way you write. So I’m willing to bet that when you write, you’re influenced by what you’re reading more than you would like to admit. It may not be major, obvious things, like tone or sentence structure (and even if it is, I don’t think this shows a lack of maturity in the writer’s voice), but maybe a plot device or a small character trait from the book you’re reading will work its way into what you’re writing without you realizing it. And that’s not always a bad thing. Often it can be quite good.

    • ericjbaker

      You’re probably right. I think I might avoid reading hard sci-fi while writing it, for example, but letting thoughts and concepts bounce around in my mind and letting them gel might give me new insights. I don’t consciously come up with ideas or willfully let another work inspire me. It happens organically. I guess it works the same way for you?

      I do stand behind the thought that someone who mimics another writer unintentionally is someone who has yet to develop his own writing voice. If I’m writing a light satire and then read Poe, there’s something wrong if my prose suddenly becomes gloomy gothic. I guess I’m drawing a distinction between style mimicry and being influenced by content.

      Thanks so much for commenting and for your perspective!

  • Jill W

    If I didn’t read while I wrote, I would never finish a book. If I didn’t write while I read, I would never finish a WIP. I must do both everyday. Oh, I gave up chewing gum. 🙂

  • feminineocean

    It’s like a musician saying she doesn’t listen to music when composing. Think most writers will agree with you. I read as often as I can, which is no where near as much as I should. Same for my writing.

    • ericjbaker

      Ah, well, when it comes to songwriting, I just flat out steal my ideas from everybody else. Luckily, I don’t know enough to make the song sound like what I’m stealing from. Its on eof those rare times when being ignorant is a benefit!

      Life keeps getting in the way of reading and writing, doesn’t it? I blame the government.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    It would have never even occurred to me to stop reading while writing, for like you, I think of them as two separate functions that utilize two entirely different pathways.

    Besides, part of the reason I read in the first place is to get ideas for my writing. Every book I read teaches me something I can use in my own work, be it a new word, a new way of structuring a sentence, a new literary device, or some real-world fact that can inform my plot. I want to be influenced by what I read, for that’s what art (of which writing is one) is all about: taking a familiar story (there are no new stories) and telling it in a different way.

    For me, reading while writing is a way to emulate Sir Issac Newton’s famous quote and stand on the shoulders of giants.

    • ericjbaker

      I’ve learned techniques from other writers and applied them in my own way. Or sometimes I just admire their skills. i don’t want to write the same way, but they make me want to be good.

  • Richard Leonard

    I have considered this before but I think I agree with you in that reading and writing are separate mental functions that (usually) do not interfere with each other. Plus I perform each activity in vastly different environments so that also helps separate the two. I read on a packed peak hour train and write at my desk at home. If I read while sitting at my desk I dare say it would be a different story. Or perhaps ironically, it may be partially the same!

  • Earnest Harris

    Man that song and video brought me back. I loved that song. Thanks for posting it.

  • ShannonRaelynn

    Hello Eric. Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting. It lead me back here to you, where I snooped and discovered we have tons in common.

    As for the topic of reading while writing, it was initially a problem when I first started to write. If I was reading a great writer it made me feel like I was an epic failure before I had even finished my story. But I am a voracious reader and could not give up the habit, and writing was becoming as strong a desire.

    I tried to limit my reading, eventually though, I made a decision to just get over myself. It took a while but now I don’t even think about it. Great books and great writing inspire me, challenge me, and push me further. And like you I am always intrigued by how often serendipity strikes. What I read and what I write often line up together.

    And writing has led me to being a pickier reader. I used to finish a book at all costs. Now, if a book doesn’t grab me in the first third,I put it down and move on to better things. Life’s too short to waste on bad books, and bad songs like “Come on Eileen”. I love Duran Duran, but have to admit, “Girls on Film” was never the reason.I guess it is because I am a girl.

    Finally, I have to end with nod to your “if by the grace of Odin” reference. My husband is a follower and so your comment made me smile. I hope he helps you out! I’ll snoop some more in the future.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for the cool reply. I can definitely relate to everything you just wrote.

      Your point about feeling inferior to the writer you are reading is a great one, and I’m sorry that it didn’t occur to me when I wrote this post. Like you, I’m no longer intimidated by other writers, but I still have those moments of, “I wish I could write like that” from time time. My fiction has become very sparse and fast-paced over the years, and I envy a writer who can create layered, detailed worlds and still make it interesting. Or someone like Oscar Wilde, with his beautifully impossible dialog.

      As for the Odin reference, I don’t follow or practice a religion, but I love the polytheistic ones for all the great stories and colorful characters. I’ve got some Norse blood in me, so it seemed natural to go with it.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

  • VarVau

    I am able to read and write at the same time. It gives me clarity, given I try to abstain from a voice that sounds too casual (i.e. you’d see me use ‘men of science’ over ‘scientists’ or the word ‘fine’ and never ‘okay’). It is often difficult for me to tell the difference between authors because I see similar structures in their mechanics unless they’re someone like Oscar Wilde, whose voice stands out from the average person.

    • ericjbaker

      I suppose different voices are appropriate for different genres, too. Sci-fi and fantasy writing , based on my non-expert observation, seems a bit more formal and grammatically correct, as opposed to say, crime drama. I enjoy satire because you get to play with voices more freely. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find an audience for it.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • VarVau

        I’m no expert, but I think a lot. Satire is a curiously flexible genre. Perhaps the way to find an audience for satire is to not make it so obvious that it is one. Johnathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is one example of a satire that I’ve heard people think was not satirical at all (needless to say they had to be given a history lesson on that one).

  • jw

    For me, it’s a bit of both, reading and not reading. At the start of a writing project (project is such a big word for the things I do) and during a large part of the writing, reading helps me for exactly the reasons you describe. But at some point, it becomes more important to finish and polish the work than to add more ideas and twists. That’s when reading becomes an unwanted influence and distraction.

    • ericjbaker

      You can call it a project! If you were painting a painting or recording a song, it would be a project.

      So for you, it sounds like a time-management issue. You want to get the story/essay/novel/poem (see, “project” is easier) done when you see the finish line in sight. I’m too far away from finishing too many projects to think about that yet.

      Thanks for the comment!

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