Thursday, April 14

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, April 14, 2011 14 comments
In her nonfiction book on writing, Escaping into the Open, Elizabeth Berg makes an interesting assertion I'd never seen anywhere else:

While drafting, avoid reading books on the same topic as yours.

(Notice she says topic, not genre. I don't think she'd pooh-pooh knowing your wider genre well.)

Her reasoning? " matter how aware or sophisticated or experienced you are, no matter how determined to write your own story, there's a very real danger that you will start to copy. It may be unconscious, but it can happen. And if that happens, it's a shame...because it denies the reading public the pleasure of your originality."

My initial thought was WHAT? If I don't know how others have tackled this, how do I know if my ideas are original? How do I avoid just repeating what has been said before if I'm ignorant of it? How do I not end up leaning on tired clichés?

Berg seems to argue here that clichés crop up because you read others' takes on your topic. Huh. It hadn't occurred to me that this might be an actual danger. Berg would call me naive, I suppose.

I kind of get what she's saying, and agree somewhat. However, my reasoning is different. Knowing how others have treated a topic might constrain me to try too hard to take a new direction in order to seem original. In so doing, I risk creating an inauthentic experience with inauthentic emotion. Some overlap is simply natural, especially when it comes to universal truths.

What do you think? Should you avoid reading books on your story's topic? Why or why not?


  1. For me, it's staying away from writers who style I love because I might mimic their voice. But at the same time, I've been reading some wonderful well written books in areas that I'm weak in as far as writing - and it helped my writing. And it wasn't even close to copying. It was learning.

    And no, the first thing I did was read another book set in the same foreign country and it was in a way research because my story was totally different.

    I guess if was about the same theme as in date rape or eating disorders- I'd rather know how the issue has been tackled so I can approach it differently.

    I think as long as we're aware of it, we should be okay. Maybe it's different for everyone?

  2. Oh, I agree absolutely. I NEVER read when I write. Unless it's research and even then, very sparingly.

    And let me tell you how much reading I have to catch up on. Which is why I'm hoping to finish the rewrites to Masquerade before the summer. I want to do nothing but lie in my chair under the trees and read ALL summer. A book a day if I can manage it.

  3. Interesting thought. In a way, we're always influenced by others' stories ... to an extent. I mean there are only so many plots anyway. But I don't think we have to totally avoid a topic, just make sure we're approaching it in a different way. I don't know if it matters that we've read a story last week or ten years ago... it all has a way of creeping into our psyche.

  4. I'm not sure I completely agree. To read up on the same topic can be a form of research, and as such can help to layer our own work with a more thorough understanding of the subject. And it seems important to be aware of what's out there on our subjects as well. Knowledge, in so many ways, is a good thing ...

  5. I'm kind of like Laura. There are some authors whose writing simply makes me drool and I want to write like them, which of course is not really what I want to do, but I hear their style in my head as I'm thinking of ideas.

    So...when I'm writing I have to stay away from them lest I get to sounding too much like them.

  6. I sort of see Berg's point, but my question is how long does this last? I mean, if you're writing a book about adult children of alcoholics, that's one thing. But in science fiction and fantasy, the genre I write in, it's not uncommon to have a series born from one book you write. Or to revisit the same element several times (magic for example, or magical creatures).

    So since I am writing about ghosts, should I then avoid reading books with ghosts in them...for years? Also, I think avoiding reading the same topic can wind up hurting you if you're writing about something that's been done before. I think it's important for you to know how things have been approached, what worked, and what you want to do differently.

    I think that most writers put their own spin on things no matter what. That even if you TRIED to copy what someone else did, you're still going to put your own take on it. You can't help but do that, because we're all different people looking at the world through different eyes.

    Great post!

  7. Tough question! Especially since some writers say you should read everything that pertains to your topic. The idea is that then you'll see how the other authors made it work. So I don't think there's an easy answer to this. If you find yourself accidentally copying what the author is doing, then you probably shouldn't read on the topic you're writing about.

  8. Laura P: I, too, learn a lot from reading, so I was pretty taken aback by this advice. Like you, I like reading other approaches to my topic so I'm able to consciously not do the same thing. I sure know what you mean about not adopting another's voice. I think that's really the bigger issue that she doesn't address.

    Anne: Interesting that you already do this. I have mixed feelings about it. Your summer plans sound heavenly!

    PK: I think you're right that we can't help be influenced by something we read even a decade ago--but that doesn't mean we'll imitate. We'll give it our own spin.

  9. Joanne: I can totally see your point. It was my initial reaction to the advice too. I figured this topic would generate some interesting discussion!

    Bish: Interesting spin on Berg's advice--that it's voice rather than topical approach you'd be tempted to copy.

  10. Elizabeth: Great questions you raise here! I tend to agree with you on this point: "I think it's important for you to know how things have been approached, what worked, and what you want to do differently." Thanks for great input into the discussion.

    Laura M: Berg's advice also struck me as running counter to what I've heard other authors say--and counter to my natural inclincations! Why wait till after you have a draft to discover you've accidentally used another author's idea--and have to start from scratch? But I can see how the copying temptation could become a problem.

  11. Had kind of considered this as far as not wanting to duplicate ideas and stuff. But didn't think about not reading the same kind of book while writing. Good to know, glad you brought this up.
    Have a great weekend!

  12. This is an interesting thought. I know that while I'm writing my thesis I was told not to read others that are similar. I see what she is trying to say, but like you I think it is important to know that we are not reinventing the wheel.

  13. Well, if she's right then I've been doing it wrong. I can understand her point, though. Maybe for my next project I'll read only things that are way different, and let my story evolve.

  14. I've never really thought of this before, but Elizabeth Berg does have a point... however, I do have to agree with you more. Yes, it is very really easy to unconsciously copy others' work. But it's funny, because after I had written the first draft of my manuscript a few months ago I read a book that was very similar to my story's plot. And so I had to go back and change a few details in my manuscript so it wouldn't seem as if I was copying this author. If I had read the book before I wrote the novel then I wouldn't have to go back and change anything.

    Also, reading books on the same topic as mine inspires me and sparks new ideas - not ideas that copy, but ideas that are formed based on an authors' plot line, character, etc.

    If I wrote a YA fiction novel about a teen girl becoming pregnant - which I wouldn't do because the plot-line is way too overdone - but if I would, then I would definitely watch a few movies and read books on the topic only to see why the audience is interested in the topic and which specific details makes the story/topic so popular so I can be sure to include those details in my story, only with a new twist. It's difficult to explain. But I guess overall you just have to draw the line somewhere so that you don't unconsciously copy the author, because I know how easy it is to do that.