Yes.

Post’s over! You can all go home now, guys. You–…what? I need to write a little more than that?

Honestly, this is one of those questions I’ve never understood. “The best writers are avid readers” appears in every “Advice for Writers” forum, book, and blog ever written. But writing communities are full of posts asking, “Do you have to read if you want to write?”

The short answer is yes. The long answer is the rest of this post.

Yes, because you must actually like books if you want to write one.

You know what just baffles me? Some of the people who ask “Hey, I want to write. But do I have to read books?” are actually trying to say, “Hey, I don’t actually like reading, but I do want to write a novel! So, uh, what about that?”

And that’s… hm. That’s a problem. Let’s take this question and apply it to other creative arts:

  • I’m creating my own videogame! What’s my favorite genre? Oh, uh, I don’t play games. They’re wastes of time. I really prefer movies, honestly.
  • My dream is to create my own movie! What do I watch? Oh, nothing. I can’t stand sitting down for that long and just watching something for that long. I just wanted to see my name on the screen, you know?
  • I’m learning to compose! But I hate music, and…

Okay, okay, you get the point. This is silly, right? Why would these imaginary people invest hundreds of hours of work into a medium where it’s hard to make something, harder to get it in front of people, and nearly impossible to make money off of? And why would they do it when they don’t even enjoy this thing?

Unfortunately, writing is seen as a low-skill task that anyone can do, so you actually do encounter people who hate books but also want to be a famous author.

So, yes. If you don’t like books, creating one will be especially difficult for you.

Yes, because it helps you learn how to analyze and dissect writing.

OK! So let’s say that you do like reading, and you do read for fun. But, you might wonder, does reading a lot actually help you write better in any appreciable way?

And yes! It does. Here’s reason #1: the more you read, the more you can practice reading critically.

It’s fine to read passively for pleasure, especially if this is how you decompress. I do that, too! But reading without thinking doesn’t teach you anything. To figure out what makes a book work, you have to really peel it apart and analyze it.

And if you’re a writer, this is an invaluable skill to have. When you write a novel, you run into all sorts of problems. How can you make this section less boring? How can you make your characters more interesting? Why is your dialogue so ineffective? These are big, scary questions. And where can you get the answers?

Well, you can get a lot of them from reading! Good books are repositories of successful techniques. If you find a book with really good characters, you can pick them apart. How does that author make them seem real? What made the dialogue good? How did they grow? If you find a really fast-paced, exciting novel, you can study its pacing. How did it keep the action going?

Reading books teaches you how to identify problems, too. Even the most popular, most successful books will probably have a few… iffy choices. And that’s great! Learning how to identify those problems, describe them, and clearly articulate why they didn’t work will help you do the same to your own books.

Yes, because you need to know your genre.

It’s also good to know the genre you write in. Then you can learn:

  • What does a book in your genre look like?
  • What cliches are common?
  • What themes are popular right now?
  • What are the big names in your genre?
  • What are the most anticipated books of this year?
  • How does my book stand out from what’s out there already?

And so on, so forth.

I know people hate rules. But if you are writing a book in a particular genre, there are a few things you have to do for your book to function within that genre (even if it’s just “fantasy books have to include fantastic elements.”) The more you know what a book in your genre looks like, the more you can innovate–because you can point to what other people are doing and explain how your book’s unique.

Also, do you want to sell that thing? Do you want an agent? Then this is really good market research, because it helps you learn what already exists and what’s currently selling.

Finally, if you find novels that are similar to yours, that’s great! You can list them in your query letter as comps, and say “My novel’s like [this successful book], but [different in this way]!”

Yes, because it might help fill your creative well.

And, finally, reading can be important for writers because… well, if you like reading, then you’ll enjoy it, right?

Whenever I can’t write, I read. It always helps. What if I find a book I like? That’s amazing! I can spend days thinking about the things I liked and picking through why I liked it–was it the description? The tone? The way the information was delivered? “Could I do something like this?” I wonder. “It seems like so much fun!”

Or maybe I hate it! That actually helps, too! I can’t imagine how many times I’ve said, “I HATE THIS PARTICULAR TROPE” and then rage-outlined a story that inverts it.

But most of all, reading is relaxing, it’s fun, and it helps me remember the things I genuinely love. And if I’m neck-deep in a story I can’t figure out, which is driving me crazy and making me ragey, remembering that I do actually love this stuff–and that I can do it, too!–helps a ton.

So yes. If you’re writing, yes. You should read often.

This isn’t a judgey thing. You don’t have to be obsessed with reading. You don’t have to feel bad for not reading as much as you’d like to. If you like books and also like reading, you’re golden.

But if you want to be an author, you really should enjoy reading, at all, period, end sentence. That does make sense, right?

Yeah. I really could have ended this post after the first word.

 

Advertisements

I spend an awful lot of time in Microsoft Word. It may not be the only word processing software out there, but there’s no denying that a lot of novels get written in it–and that a lot of people don’t know the useful things it can do.

So let’s talk about styles and how you, a novelist, can use them.

Styles are complicated and powerful, and while you don’t need to use many of them in a novel, they are good for:

  • Making your Word file easy to navigate, so you can jump with one click from chapter to chapter
  • Making it easy to create an ebook version of your file in Calibre
  • Quickly and easily changing font styles throughout the document.

Let’s get to it!

First thing’s first: what are styles?

Screenshot of the

“Styles” takes up about half of the “Home” tab in Microsoft Word. Here’s what it looks like.

“Styles” are, well, font styles. Let’s say you have a simple report, and you have three different font styles: a large 1st-level header for the title of every section, a smaller 2nd-level header for subheadings, and a “normal” font for all of the text. You want your 1st-level heading to be 20pt Arial font, black, and with a 6pt of spacing after every header, and your 2nd-level header to be 16pt Arial, blue.

Let’s say your report is 100 pages long and includes 30 1st-level headers and 60 2nd-level headers. You write the whole document. You’re done. Then, one day before the report’s due, you have to change it.  Both of your headers should be blue, the 1st-level header should be 18pt Times New Roman, and the 2nd-level should be 14pt. What do you do?

Well, if you manually formatted this document, you’d have to find all 90 of those headers and manually change them, one by one by one.

But if you had used styles, you wouldn’t have to do that.

Here’s what would have done: You would have gone to the “Heading 1” and “Heading 2” styles and made them look exactly the way you want it to. You would have set their size, color, spacing, borders–whatever.

Then you would have gone through the document. Every time you used a first- or second-level header, you’d select the text and click one of the buttons in the “styles” section–“Heading 1” or “Heading 2,” in this case. Then MAGIC HAPPENED.

Because the moment you do that, your text is automatically formatted according to the rules you assigned to that style. And if you ever need to change that style, you don’t change it in the document. You just edit the Heading 1 or Heading 2 style directly and every header in your document using that style is automatically updated.

How is this useful for novels?

You probably don’t use a lot of font styles in novels. 99% of my novels are one thing: 12pt Times New Roman font. There’s just one really important exception: chapters headings. At the start of every chapter, I have a big, bold heading: CHAPTER ONE. CHAPTER TWO. CHAPTER THREE.

And I create a style for those. This does two things. First, it makes it really easy to navigate your Word file. Just hit Control+F to bring up the Navigation Pane:

The MS Word Navigation Pane with the "Browse the Headings in your Document" button circled.

See that button? That’s called “Browse the headings in your document.” Click it.

The Browse Headers button showing all the chapters in a document.

And voila. Because I made every chapter heading a header, I can now see all of them–and I can click on them to navigate around the file.

Know what’s even better? If you want to create an e-book of your novel, Calibre will automatically split your book into chapters and create a table of contents. It does this by looking for Heading 1s and splitting the book at those points. (I covered this in a very old post called A Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Making Imperfect .EPUB Files.)

So if you write in Word, this is useful. Let’s talk about how to do it.

Step #1: Edit the “Heading 1” Style

First, let’s make the Heading 1 style look the way you want it to.

  1. Go to the “Home” tab. In the “Styles” section, find “Heading 1.”
  2. Right click on it.Screenshot of styles tab showing Heading 1
  3. Click on “modify.”MS Word - Styles Page
  4. This is the “Modify Style” page. The easiest stuff to change is in the middle. Choose the font, size, and color.
  5. If you want to change anything else, click the “Format” button. You can customize a lot of things! But for the purposes of this example, we’re done. Hit “OK.”

“Heading 1” should now look exactly like you want it to.

Done? Good. Now do the same thing to the style called “Normal.” This is your “normal” text.

Step #2: Apply the style to all your chapter headings.

This one’s easy!

  1. Go through your entire document.
  2. When you encounter a chapter heading, select it. Be careful to only select the text you want to be a header. Don’t select extra lines or spaces!
  3. Click on “Heading 1.” Your chapter heading should automatically change.

Step #3: Make sure it looks right.

Remember above, when I told you how to use Control+F to bring up the Navigation Panel? Do that. View your headings. Does everything look OK?

It’s easy to make mistakes. I have, for example, accidentally made single blank spaces into headers–and then they show up in the heading viewer as big, empty spaces that mess up the flow of my “table of contents.”

So what do you do if that happens? Just turn it into normal text.

  1. Navigate to the thing that shouldn’t be a header. (You can do this by going into the Navigation Panel with Control+F, going to “Browse the headings in your document,” then clicking on the mistake.)
  2. Select the stuff that shouldn’t be a header.
  3. Click on the “Normal” style.

It will be converted from a Heading to normal font. And normal font doesn’t appear in the navigation panel, so it should vanish from your “Browse the headings in your document” list.

And that’s it!

That’s all you have to do. Now you can navigate your Word file with just a click of the mouse. And if you want to convert your Word file into an e-book, you’re all set–all you have to do is follow the steps in A Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Making Imperfect .EPUB Files.

It’s a simple trick, but it can be super useful!