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Reading and Writing: Which One Is More Important?

June 19, 2014
This would be a crummy way to read AND a crummy way to write. (image via Wikimedia)

This would be a crummy way to read AND a crummy way to write. (image via Wikimedia)

It might not be the most pressing debate of our time. Until the chicken and the egg dispute is resolved, I feel guilty even bringing this up. But I feel guilty about a lot of things, so I might as well add this to the list.  Which is more important, reading or writing?

There’s a reason I ask this question. The next couple weeks are going to be busier than normal. My family is moving, so discretionary time will be limited for a while. I can usually get about 30 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of writing every weeknight (if everything falls into place), but now I might be lucky to get just 15 minutes of one. So for a couple weeks, I’ll have to choose. Do I use my limited spare time for reading or for writing?

It’s difficult to write when moving. The den is stacked with skyscrapers of boxes, and rooms are thick with the scent of cardboard. When I sit to write, my elbows collide with crates and boxes on both sides of me. I feel like somebody is reading over my shoulder while I’m writing, which I never allow anybody to do because my first drafts always suck. Even though boxes don’t have opinions about my blog, my paranoia keeps me from fully concentrating. Plus, while packing, I found a $25 gift certificate to B. Dalton Booksellers that I never used, and that ticked me off so much that I can’t think. Despite these obstacles, I continue to try.

Back to the debate, of course both reading and writing are important. Some would say reading is more important because everybody says “Reading and writing” when you put them together. Hardly anyone ever says “writing and reading.” It just isn’t done. Maybe reading is first because of its alphabet placement. But that doesn’t work because people say “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” If the placement were alphabetized, “arithmetic” would be first (or “’rithmetic” would be second). This might upset math teachers who believe that math is more important than reading and writing combined. After all, math is universal, and language isn’t (kind of). But that’s a debate for a different blog.

I’ve never heard anybody claim that reading and writing aren’t important. When I was in school, I heard lots of whining (I hope I wasn’t a whiner) about different subjects. “Why do we have to memorize dates?” “When are we ever going to use trigonometry?” “Why do I have to know the periodic table?” But I don’t remember any of my peers asking, “Why do we have to read and write?” Even the kids who didn’t know how to read/write understood that reading and writing were important.

Technically, reading is probably the more important skill because you have to know how to read in order to be able to write. But my question is about my/our use of time. When I was a kid, I loved to read but I hated to write. Writing was something that teachers and parents forced us to do. Then sometime late in junior high or early high school, I discovered I was good at telling/writing stories. Suddenly, I realized that writing could be fun. Then when word processing became available (and I no longer had to physically mark up my own stories or be precise with my Wite-out), writing became easier, which meant I wrote more. But with more writing came less reading.

Right now, my writing is more important to me than my reading. I have goals with my writing. If I don’t reach those goals, I get a little grouchy. I’m trying to accomplish ___________ by a certain time and then finish _________ by a certain time. I need to have those goals to force myself to get them done. I don’t have reading goals. When I was younger, I used to have reading goals, but then I ended up reading when I didn’t feel like it. Maybe that was good for me intellectually, but I don’t need to do that to myself anymore. I don’t feel like I need to finish three books a week or sample/quit two books a day. I read like I watch TV, I’ll do it when I get to it (except for football, which I must watch when it’s on and nothing else matters, including my writing).

This might have been a stupid question to ask, but I’ve gotten emotionally sucked into answering stupid questions before. Which football dynasty was greater, the Steelers of the 1970s or the 49ers of the 1980s? (49ers) Which television series was better, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer or Angel? (Buffy) Does Stephen King follow his own writing advice in On Writing anymore? (No) In all three instances (and more), somebody disagreed with me, and (near) shouting matches ensued (even with my monotone voice). But I don’t shout anymore. And picking writing over reading isn’t like Sophie’s Choice; nobody’s life is going to be ruined by my decision.

So for right now, writing is more important to me than my reading.

But enough about me! Which is more important to you, reading or writing?  Are box fumes dangerous to a person’s health? Do you think any bookstores would redeem my B. Dalton Bookseller’s gift certificate issued in 1991?

  1. I still miss B.Dalton’s. Almost as much as I miss Waldenbooks.

    Writing is important to me, but reading is like breathing. I went through a time when my son was a baby in which I read about 8 books a week. I’m pretty sure that was the only thing that allowed me to keep my sanity during the first year. Now it’s more like one book every week or so. Basically, reading is a necessity for me, writing is a luxury.

    • I miss them both. I remember when malls used to have both a B. Dalton’s and a Waldenbooks.

      Right now I’m going through a phase where I’m almost always thinking about what I’m going to write, but I rarely think about what I’m going to read.

  2. Depends on the day:)

  3. imadeiyamu permalink

    in theory reading is better. but it depends on what you prefer individually…

  4. Only thirty minutes per weeknight for each doesn’t seem like much. I suppose you have a lot of other responsibilities. I was raised in the seventies where parents more or less neglected their children so they could drink, smoke, and play cards. If they wanted to they could have had all night to read and write. But of course they didn’t. Moving is terrible. I hate moving. My wife and I get rid of everything we don’t absolutely need in case we move or one us dies.

    • A long time ago I knew a guy who barely kept any furniture (bed, couch, table, TV) because when he moved, he just wanted to leave. He was the kind of guy that shady people were always looking for. I think the shady people caught up with him because I haven’t heard from him in a while.

  5. I’ve all but stopped reading. Writing matters much more to me at this point. I read voraciously for most of my life. I think I just might be full.

  6. I love them both, but reading work by others helps to get out of your head and can introduce you to new ideas. This doesn’t happen as often when you’re too entrenched in writing

    • I don’t know. I get a lot of my ideas while I’m writing (or while I’m thinking about my writing). Reading is more for relaxation now, unless I’m specifically researching. But like you, I love them both… but not as much as I love my family (in case they’re reading this).

  7. Reading helps Imagination..If you are only writing you may feel out of ideas , reading gives new thoughts..just listening to good music also helps

  8. My writing is really a side effect of my reading, so reading comes first.

  9. putriherliana permalink

    I’ll go with list of X on this, I think reading comes first. It feels great to see the world through reading, and after that I’d feel the need to be part of it and share my very own perspective through my writing : ) don’t have particular

  10. As a writer, i believe both are vitally important to me. Stephen King may not follow his own advice anymore, but many successful writers agree with his quote that if you don’t read, you don’t have all the tools you need to write well. Composition, structure, learning what you like and don’t like with regard to genres, descriptive language etc, and learning new words and looking up their meaning are all things you can get from reading. You won’t expand your vocabularly just by writing. To keep improving, to become a better writer, you need to read loads and write loads.Ying and Yang, they go hand in hand.

  11. You touched a key point there, and I am glad I am not the only one to notice it: Stephen King has ineed gone mad. His 2 latest books are an example.

  12. I think about this a lot, actually, in terms of “input” (reading) and “output” (writing). For me, they have to be balanced. If I have too much output and not enough input, my well is dry. If I have too much input and not enough output, I feel overwhelmed.

    But if I had to choose one or the other to focus on during a short, chaotic time, I would definitely choose reading. I can’t write much without peace and quiet, but depending on the book I can read anywhere.

  13. Caleb permalink

    To me writing is the most important. You get better at writing the more you write, and improving is my top priority. If I’m having a crazy week/month/etc. I always make sure I get in my daily writing goal. It may take me a month to finish whatever book I’m reading, but I’ll be growing as a writer. That’s what matters most.

  14. thepowerliesinyourwords permalink

    I agree, it’s very difficult to decide, but I must admit that if I didn’t read as much as I do, I wouldn’t have the inspiration to write

  15. victor permalink

    Less than 0.1% of folks in the world write anything except school- or work-related stuff or email to family and friends. In other words, only cos they’re forced to.

    On the other hand, more than 10% of folks read stuff other than school or work stuff or email.

    There must be a reason why more people read than write. Most likely more than one reason. It’s faster, easier, more convenient, more available, and takes less thinking. What’s more, I believe in GIGO — garbage in, garbage out; we can’t write good stuff if we don’t digest lots of good reading material.

    That’s why, although I write for a living, I still spend more time reading than writing. Maybe I’m just lazy… but with so little time on your hands, I think it’s better spent on reading!

    • But it’s also often the case that if one wants to be a good writer, they must also learn to love the revision process. Not just in correcting syntax or grammatical errors – even if one composes in perfect sentences, there are always words that can be struck out, minor adjustments that makes an expressive statement more beautiful, sometimes imbuing them with a musical quality, and the list goes on! Just have to get into it with 110% commitment – nothing less.

      With regards to the reading bit, depends on whom I read I suppose. Shakespeare, Joyce or Nabokov for instance make me wonder why I even bother with my pen.

  16. I suppose reading and writing go together like peanut butter and jelly if you are a writer. I’m obviously not advocating to steal someone’s work by reading it, but the more you read, the more literate you become, the better understanding you gain of word and sentence structure, construction of plots and characters – all skills that can be put to good use in your writing.

    Fun blog, I’ll definitely come back for more. I’m new to blogging myself, but I love to talk about books so feel free to stop by sometime at:

  17. This is a happy thing. The answer is – wait for it…here it comes: Reading! Yay!

    I envy you my blogging friend. You can put your mind at ease without a smidgen of guilt and partake in the joy of pickaxing your way through the tortured minds of our brethren. Moving blows. You deserve the reading time.

    I’m a former private detective and actually had drills with my employees where twice a year we would practice having to be completely gone in 30 mins. I miss those days. Now, with two kids, two dogs and partner who collects every bauble associated with said spawn and canines – my moves make me want to pluck out my teeth and stick push pins in the holes without any Novacaine.

    Be free, my friend! I will covet your reading time from afar.

  18. It goes like this, To cook better you need to eat a lot. Not all the time. There are instincts of thoughts that would help accomplish our writing goals but where our thoughts end, we borrow from the writers of different times.

    It should go parallel. Like water and food, both writing and reading are elixir of an artist. I feel you should go on with writing and take a reading break !

  19. Taking more time to write and choose suitable , soluble words than reading straight except confronting a big word.

  20. I think we don’t have to choose if what is the more important. Its just that maybe they are both important in different purposes.

  21. Brooke permalink

    I’m currently in the same situation! I just moved to a new state with my husband this past week. During wedding planning and packing, I had no time to write (I couldn’t even find my writing supplies in all the boxes). This week I could finally unpack and spread out, but I’m still getting settled so creating a new routine is difficult.

    For me, in order to write well I need to feed my creativity with reading. Familiarizing myself with other words and sparking my thoughts with other writer’s questions help me find new ideas to ruminate on and write about. I find inspiration in reading, but I read in bite-size. I’ll read a chapter and chew on it for a few days.

    Thanks for the post! 🙂

    – Brooke

    • I’m glad you mentioned the adjustment time after the move. I’m still having a tough time getting into a routine in our new place. I like the new place a lot, but so far it’s more difficult to concentrate. I’m finding it much easier to read than to write.

  22. The thing for me abotu reading is that it is easier to fit in with doing something else eg travel – as long as you are not the driver! I know many people write on a bus or train journey but it is far easier just to read. If time is limited and you aren’t forced to write something to a deadline, I’d vote for reading eveyr time.

  23. Since I am not a writer, I would choose reading but I am in awe of writers and wish I could write and I do write journals, letters, emails, lists of things to do, notes, quotes and jokes. I have notepads everywhere and I am a real TL:DR when I write to people. I just cannot create a story line to save my life. My apartment is wall to wall books and sometimes I think I write simple to have something to read in between books. If I have to choose between food, booze and books…books win. They certainly beat out clothes, jewellery, purses and make up and outside socializing and entertainment. Books are my life and I give thanks every day that I can read and that there are writers providing me with stuff to read. I am Canadian and to me jewellery is spelled with two lls. My only skill in life is my ability to spell 🙂

  24. Which doesn’t mean I am incapable of typos.

  25. I read to put off writing. When I write I put off reading. I need to write my fourth novel. I am reading right now. The two, for me, cannot coexist. There you go. My deep, meaningful response.

  26. If you’re bound up doing something that makes your writing life difficult, but you have a little time, do what is easiest. Next criterion, if the reading is not going to be profitable, write. Next criterion, you might be able to take notes, which you can fill out later into a page or pages of manuscript.
    But the primary thing to do, is do what is easiest.

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