You Can’t Be a Reader and a Writer

A long time ago, someone told me, “The best writers are great readers.”

The thinking was that if you read a lot — and read good stuff — you’ll figure out the English language works, how to develop an argument, how to construct a persuasive claim.

Fair enough. I think there’s truth there.

But more recently, someone else told me, “You can’t be a reader and a writer. There isn’t enough time. You have to choose.”

And I think this latter person was right, too. Maybe more right.

I’m at the point where I need to quit pecking away at Why Pray? in my free time. I need to write every day, no exceptions. I need to write thousands of words in the coming months, and then go back over the words and revise, revise, revise.

Meanwhile, the list of books that I want to read before I die continues to grow. Books on philosophy and theology, classics of literature, new books and old, pile up on my desks and in my Kindle. Plus, the newspaper arrives on our doorstep every day, and Google Reader is full of myriad unread posts that I want to get to.

I am beginning to think that it’s true: If I want to be a writer — a truly good writer — I probably cannot be a reader, at least not the extent that I’d like to be.

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  • I find that the well runs dry if I don’t read. But I have to be selective. I also have a pile of books I will not get to for a while. So my criteria is simple: What is helpful to me right now that might be helpful to others?

  • Tim Baker

    This statement feels old school. Way back in the day (whenever that was), the writer’s burden was to be more exact with their word usage and use grammar as a tool for engaging the reader. That’s still somewhat true, I think a more current (and truer) statement is, “The best writers are those who are living fully.” And for that, I don’t think you can opt out; you can’t choose living fully or writing. Good content, great stories that engage the mind and heart flow from those who spend time away from their laptops, who engage ideas (in whatever form, including books), who share drinks with friends, who canoe rivers, etc.

  • I wonder if this also has to do with the way technology is shaping our expectations of data. I cannot begin to imagine how hard it would be to read so broadly before the internet (and worse with the blogosphere). Our reading capacity is changing. Even when I do read it is so hard to sit down and just digest a book the way I did as a kid when all I had was a novel or book. Now I read a bit, then I want to surf a bit to find out what others think, then I get distracted a lot, then I go back and read a bit, then I realize I need to be writing and write a bit, then…. well you get the picture. With so many data streams it is a bit overwhelming. I think you need to carve a niche and set parameters around when you will allow yourself to leave there. One of the benefits of having to run Nota Bene (my writing software) in a virtual box is that I can not have browsers and other distractions there too, it is like an isolated environment sorta.

  • Tony Jones. I don’t get it. Seriously? I’m about to yell at you through my computer.

    I know you weren’t looking for this, but whatever. You’re a great writer. You produce an amazing book about once every 4 months. You write excellent, provocative articles on your blog, which, by the way, is ranked as one of the top 15 Christian blogs. I wonder, what would make you a “truly good writer”? Are you comparing your writing ablities to others? Stop that. It’s toxic. Relax. Because you rock.

    Keep doing what you’re doing. reading. Keep writing. And, as Tim Baker wisely says in his comment, keep “living fully.”

  • Cody Stauffer

    Yeah, the writers who give that advice almost always clarify it with, “but not when you are writing!” In fact, a lot of them say that when you are writing, if you do read a little, make it something like a newspaper or magazine, that you can read bits of real quick and put aside. This also has the benefit of not forcing your mind to compare what you are writing with what you are reading, since they are completely different types of writing.

  • Carl Gregg

    What I found with my dissertation is that at a certain point, you need to stop reading and commit to getting the writing done for a minimum set of hours most days of the week until it is done. So for me the need is more for alternating: seasons of immersing myself in reading for a big project (in which I’m reading more than writing) and seasons of writing (in which I’m writing much more than reading).

  • Danielle Shroyer

    I think you could also approach it in stages or seasons. When writing a book, just about everything superfluous gets tabled so you can get writing time in every day. After you finish, you take a break and get to read, read, read!

    But I think you’re right- I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there will never be quite enough hours in the day to read as much as I’d like and still be “productive.”

  • Unfortunately, I think this is true. Most of the people around me think I read really fast. They Measure my reading by their reading. I think I read tremendously slow, since I measure my reading by what I think I OUGHT to read. And reading is WAY easier than writing, and easily sucks up all my time. At root, for me, it’s my perfectionism. I think I have to get everything right before I write. But there is no such thing.

  • Well, actually, I think one could be a serious reader and a truly good writer, but then one couldn’t also be a Little League umpire or a police chaplain or a decent husband and father, etc. The ivory tower comes at a price too.

    There are only 24 hours in every day and we don’t know how many of them we’re going to get. So yes, we have to make choices. And we have to make our choices in light of our discernment of God’s calling in our lives. But if we choose well, all those experiences feed our writing. I think Tim Baker has the right idea.

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  • I relate to this in the sense that I can’t be a novelist or poet full-time because I have immediate needs and responsibilities to meet that require a steady income. Then in my free time, I prefer to catch up on reading any books and watching any movies I’ve been dying to finish. So I always feel like I’m in limbo – do I sit down and write or do I read for a while then watch a movie?

    I haven’t figure out a solution yet but I’m trying to compromise with myself by reading during some of my spare time and sticking to poetry and short stories during the rest. It might not lead me to writing and publishing a novel but at least it helps me have a little of both.