Reading as a Writer

30th June 2021
3 min read
13th June 2023

In this extract from the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2022, Cathy Rentzenbrink looks at how reading can open up new worlds and possibilities, as well as providing an invaluable learning resource for writers.


I have always loved reading more than pretty much anything else. It enables exploration and escape, gives consolation and pleasure, and fuels my desire to know the world. I don’t remember learning how to do it, so it doesn’t feel like a skill I had to acquire, more like a gift bestowed by a benevolent fairy godmother. ‘I will make this one a reader,’ she said, as she waved her wand over my crib. Perhaps it was this way for you, too, or maybe you came to reading later in life.

The most useful way to learn about technique, the nuts-and-bolts stuff, is to look at what other writers do. What point of view they have chosen? How do they handle any time shifts? How have they selected the start and end point of their story? When I get stuck on a point like this, I will look for the answer on my bookshelves. If I’m struggling with handling the dialogue when there are lots of characters present, then I’ll search out dinner party scenes. At the moment I’m considering writing a novel that happens largely in flashback, but when I tried this before I found it too hard. This time I am going to reread The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins and carefully study exactly how it is done.

So, read. Because it’s useful. Because it’s pleasurable. Because books are the best that humanity has to offer. Because your life will be enlarged when you spend as much of it as you can engaged in long-form narrative. Because you will feel better than if you toss away your time on the internet. And because you can take it all back to your own work.

This is an abridged version of an article taken from the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. The 2024 edition publishes on 20th July.

Cathy Rentzenbrink is the author of the memoir The Last Act of Love (2015), A Manual for Heartache (2017) and Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books (2020), all published by Picador. Everyone is Still Alive (Phoenix 2021) is her first novel. Cathy has worked for the Reading Agency and Waterstones and regularly contributes to the media on all aspects of books and reading. For more information see Follow her on Twitter @catrentzenbrink.

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