Hint #13: When You Can’t Write, Read

Jun 22, 2020 | Hints, Writing

It’s that time again.

Welcome back to Hints, a miniseries of Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets.

Not sure where to go from here, but don’t want someone else taking command? This is a common problem for writers.

To leave you high and dry without any guidance would be cruel, but well meaning “advice” easily turns into a hostile takeover.

What you could really use…is a hint.

“Hints: because you only need a little help.”

It’s Gone…

Have you ever reached a point where you simply cannot do any meaningful work?

I’m not talking about a practical obstacle, such as an inability to log into your writing laptop or a medically induced coma. No, I’m talking about that point writers sometimes reach when the writing simply doesn’t fall into their lap like it’s supposed to.

In the vernacular, it’s known as writer’s block.

And it’s not appetizing at all. In fact, it’s one of the great nuisances of life, because it generally takes up hours, or even days, of your time where you feel like you’ve been expending tremendous effort, and yet you have no results to show for it. You may even have less writing on the page than when you started.

Now, I am hardly the first person to ever suggest a cause or cure for writer’s block. And one little hint is not going to upend the work of centuries to pin down and eliminate the dreaded scriptorum blockosis.

But I am aware of one solution that doesn’t get nearly as much coverage as it deserves, particularly when it has a sterling track record for eliminating writer’s block.

What strange and wondrous enchantment could be powerful enough to puncture the dreaded block? Well, it’s kind of a no-brainer.


A particularly brilliant author once tweeted:

When you can’t write, read.

T. ALAN HORNE, Jun 17, 2020

And there isn’t much to unpack there. Every writer should also be a reader, naturally. And most writers keep a library of other people’s books that they have finished, as well as a “to read” pile of books in need of a good devouring.

When all you’re doing is spinning your wheels, when the words don’t come and there’s no point in staring at your computer screen, you’ve got to get away from your own writing and start appreciating someone else’s.

Research Is a Tricky Word

You can think of your reading as research—except that, among writers, “research” means something other than what it’s supposed to.

When most writers talk about research, they mean investigating a real world event or system upon which to base elements of their story. This is not the research I’m talking about.

I’m referring to the kind of research a director or producer does when he tours film festivals. The kind of research a musician does when composing her next song. The kind of research an actor is doing when he watches a piece of legitimate theater.

It’s not to learn about what kinds of medical practices were popular during the great depression, or learning about which kinds of oceangoing vessels would match a steampunk setting. Not the school kind of research.

Rather, it’s the research of opening your eyes to what your chosen profession actually does. It’s familiarizing yourself with how a person can direct, compose, act, or even write.

Every time a writer reads something professional and polished, he is giving himself a hint about what his manuscript needs to look like to be similarly professional and polished. It’s no different from how an actor watches other actors to learn how to act.

Wallowing in Books

It is an unfortunate truism that once a writer starts writing in earnest, he loses time for reading. Unfortunate because reading is an essential part of developing the writing talent. There is no stage of the writer’s career where he can safely give it up.

If you’re ever stuck with a block, you won’t be doing yourself any favors by trying to write. Instead, read the block away. And then get back to work.

Not sure I can give a bigger hint than that.

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