Why Writers Should Read Outside Their Genre

Published on 8/12/2020

My boyfriend asked me to try the Percy Jackson books, as he adored them when he read them. I agreed as I’m aiming to try each genre at the moment and hadn’t decided what to read next. Little did I know that I would be hooked! I can barely put them down to write this article. I have taken a maximum of three days for each book, and I am devastated to be on the final one of the series. I always read for fifteen minutes before going to sleep, but lately, it has quickly turned into an hour as I keep telling myself I’ll stop after the next page. I read them on the train, mention them to friends and even write an article to other writers about them. Because not only should you read the Percy Jackson series, but you should be reading every genre, not just the one you write in.

One of the most significant pieces of advice that successful writers give is to read. Read, read, and read some more. You can’t create good writing until you know good writing. You can’t produce something unique without knowing what is out there. I genuinely believe that every book you read contributes to making you an even better writer.

But then there’s the catch. People will recommend that you read everything in the genre you write for, and only that. To read countless romance novels so that you can perfect the love between Antonio and Olivia. To enrich your mind with every Stephen King thriller and Stephen Wannabe before you try to terrify your readers. But we need to stop telling writers to stay in the lane that they write for. Yes, you should read a lot of books in your genre. But if you enjoy writing that genre, likely, you’re already reading it as you’re writing what you want to read. So that advice is merely read more, but you barely get told to diversify your reading habits.

In her masterclass, the renowned showrunner, screenwriter, and producer Shonda Rhimes said that you should read everything you can get your hands on. She reads the entire newspaper as it can give her ideas for storylines or characters, and things she has read in these articles have made appearances in her work.

And I agree with Shonda, I think you should read everything you can, and this should also apply to the genres within the books you read. You should try all genres of books and here’s why.

1. The good in each

Something is amazing about each genre of books, something they achieve so well. Imagine taking each of those and adapting them to your genre and your book. It’s like creating the Powerpuff girls, discovering each ingredient for a phenomenal novel, and using it for your gain.

For example, we know that romance novels often leave the reader satisfied. They know what their readers want, even down to a formula, and can make it happen. They are the rulers of misunderstood characters, and those characters that you can’t help but love. Having a reader love your complicated character is a sure way to get them to the final page.

Memoirs, and not just of writers, but anybody can be ripe with ideas. That casual, conversational tone, which is easily achieved by honestly talking about your life, is something that many first-person novels strive for. You want your character to feel real? Read a book by the actual main character of it and look at how they do that.

I have always found it amazing how thriller and horror novels manage to terrify a reader without anything visual. They use their words, and often the most incredible description, to keep you on the edge of your seat. Learn from their story; from the rich way they set a scene and tantalize all of your senses. Every genre benefits from outstanding description.

Like I mentioned, I’m currently reading a young adult series about a demi-god called Percy Jackson. This was something I didn’t do often enough at the age they’re intended for, as I skipped ahead to ‘grown-up books.’ But young adult novels are fascinating. They excel at keeping a reader, who likely struggles with focus at that age, from putting the book down. The foreshadowing is incredible, and I can’t wait to adopt it to my own literary fiction novel.

2. The spark of an idea

Shonda Rhimes finds ideas in random news articles, and the same could apply to a different genre of novel. A profession mentioned in a romantic story could spark an entire adventure or journey for your own. A trait of a character or small event in their novel could fuel your own. If you get ideas from books in your genre, they’ve likely been explored similarly. But if you get one from a different genre, they probably used it entirely differently or barely addressed it as you would. It is untapped gold, buried within their text, and waiting for you to make it shine.

3. What not to do

You may not enjoy all the genres that you try. That’s okay, as we still learn from books that we consider wrong. Reading young adult novels has reminded me of the importance of showing and not telling, which I struggle with, and they clearly do as well. It has taught me what it is like to be a reader who is always told everything and not allowed to discover things independently. And now, I can be more aware of this in my writing and moving forwards.

You may consider certain characters in genres to be too two-dimensional, and then you know how not to describe them. You might think thrillers move too quickly and skip vital moments, so now you can look for such moments in your writing.

If you read something that is not your cup of tea, you can work out why. What is it that you dislike about “coming of age” stories? Are you sure that you’re not doing the same thing anywhere in your work?

If you only read the best works created in your genre, you never get to spot what not to do and what to avoid in your own work. You end up trying to replicate what has already been done perfectly.

4. Try something new with your writing

Many of us have never tried writing in another genre. We’ve just assumed what we’re good at doing. But if you don’t try, you never know. If you realize that you love reading romance novels, don’t be a snob about them, give it a go! Read different genres and work out how you would go on from there, how you would tackle the same book. You may be the best thriller writer of this decade and have no idea because you’ve convinced yourself that you’re a young adult author.

I have never considered writing for young adults. Maybe because I jumped too quickly to adult books and assumed my writing should be literary fiction. But reading a series like this, I am a little jealous. Everything I’ve written has been a stand-alone piece, but having a reader follow me and my characters over novels and years sounds incredible. The depth that you can go into when you have several novels to work with is astounding; you can make characters so real to your reader and self. I am so tempted to give it a go.

5. You’ll read more

By only reading the best of your genre, you limit yourself to what you can read. And it can be kind of tiring to read such similar works or tones time after time—different moods or periods of our life request different things to read. I’m at a point where I am editing a novel as I desperately wait to hear back from agent queries, and I don’t want to read literary fiction and novels about mental illness for a while. I want a break. I want to follow Percy Jackson as he fights monsters and rescues Olympus.

As a writer, you should read more, but you shouldn’t lose the pleasure of reading. You likely became a writer because you love reading, don’t turn reading into a job; that’s what writing already is! Read what you want to, and discover that through trying a bit of everything.

Many people tell me how they used to read more and lost the flow of it. They want to get back into it, but the classic novel they’re plowing through just isn’t working. That’s because you’ve lost your muscle for reading, and yet you’re trying to start with a half-marathon. And I love a half-marathon or classic novel, but not when I’ve been sitting on my bum for months. Read something fun and easy. Then another one, maybe a series so that you’ll be hooked to keep going. Once your muscles are warmed up again, then throw in one ‘harder’ book. Soon you won’t be able to differentiate from the difficulty of novels as you’re back into the flow of reading.

When considering reading, the main thing that writers looking to get published should read is the Writers & Artists Yearbook for the upcoming year. This will give unparalleled advice, including a list of agents open for submissions.

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Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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