Advice on whether to do this varies. Do you read while you’re writing? If so, should you read books similar to what you’re writing? Will that inspire and help you, or is it going to cause you to accidentally plagiarize?
Most things I’ve read on the subject of writing advises that you read similar stories to your own when writing, though. A few don’t, but it’s a common suggestion. It will help you see what readers will expect from you, and if you’re careful, help you make sure you’re staying original while still holding true to genre conventions if you like. Besides, good writing should help and inspire you, right?
Er… well… sometimes. Actually, I find that reading good books while I am myself writing depresses me.
I’ll be writing along, feeling that my writing is pretty good, not stellar, but adequate. I’m content with it. It is fine.
Then — I start reading a really good book, and I’m thrown into despair. It’s — it’s so amazing! How very mediocre — no, how atrocious — my writing looks next to this masterpiece! Look at that style… and the subtle plot changes… and that dialogue! The perfect metaphors, the integrated description, the effective theme…
My writing can never measure up to that. I might as well just give up.
A little melodramatic, yes, but I tend to be that way.
This reaction tempts me to say, no, I shouldn’t read when I’m writing. After all, it only depresses me. Or better still… I have an idea! What would be the best option would be to find really bad books to read, with prose that stinks a lot worse than mine, hideously on-the-nose observations, and characters so flat you could use them for bookmarks.
That’ll work. Yep. Then my writing will be far superior, and I can write along happily without being plagued by thoughts of how much better it could be.
But… wait a second. Just listen to what I’m saying — I should read lousy books, which will neither inform nor inspire, just so I can feel good about the less-than-perfect state of my writing skills? Is there any way this can possibly be right?
And if you’re going to look at it that way… how does it sound not to read at all, just so I don’t have to feel bad about my writing? It’s so much easier, so much more comfortable, than reading good literature. It doesn’t require me to face up to the weaknesses in my craft, and work hard to fix them.
Reading good books ought not to depress, but inspire us. If the comparison to our writing leaves ours looking less than excellent, then shouldn’t we face that, improve, and strive to always grow, rather than wallowing in the mire of self-pity (or as it were, writing pity)?
So yes — I believe we should read while writing. Read the most excellent stories we can find. Let’s not lose ourselves obliviously and happily in complacency, nor in the sharp pang of unfavorable comparison, but be inspired by those who have gone before us, and learn from all they have to teach us.