Great Writers Have One Thing in Common
by Nancy Sackheim
Great writers have one thing in common. They read. They read for entertainment, for escape, for knowledge, and they read to become better writers. Reading is essential to the craft of writing. Can you write if you don't read? Sure. Probably won't be worth reading...but go ahead. Express yourself.
But, you say, I don't have time to read and write, and do all the other stuff I want to do, not to mention I have a day job and maybe a family and a dog and three cats and a one-legged chicken and a lot of other life stuff. So don't read...and please, don't write. Just do all that other stuff. Because, as Stephen King said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
What should you be reading? What do you like to read? Read that. Once in a while, take some chances on books you're not sure about, say classic fiction written before your great-grandmother was born, maybe Shakespeare, some poetry, or historical nonfiction (one of my personal "not-sure-abouts"). You don't have to finish books you don't like. The book police won't arrest you. I promise. Nor will they arrest you if you just read parts of books. If you don't like what you're reading, you won't read. And (quoting just about everybody who knows more about this than I do) to write well, you have to read...a lot.
Won't reading books about writing help me be a better writer, you ask? Maybe. But keep in mind if that's all there was to it, everyone who reads how-to books on the craft of writing would be a successful writer with a publishing contract in their back pocket.
Are there great books on writing out there? Of course. A couple of my favorites are John Gardner's The Art of Fiction (although I learned more from his novel, Nickel Mountain) and Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (although I learned more from reading Hearts in Atlantis, and pretty much any one of his short stories).
Reading isn't supposed to be like taking medicine (tastes terrible, but so good for you). You should be inspired by what you read. Inspiration begets creativity. Creativity is crucial to good writing. How-to books full of formulas and rules will not make you a great writer. Do they belong in your library? Why not? I have some myself. But none of them contains the magic template that will make your book great. You will make your book great...but only after you've read often, closely, and well.
As for a list of what to read, get one off the internet. That's where I get mine. At last count Google listed over 20 million results for "reading lists." One of them is bound to be a fit for you. And when you finish that list, go back and get another. If you do that often enough, there's a good chance one day people will be reading your book, and enjoying it!