Why Reading Outside Your Genre Matters

I’m looking at why writers should read outside their genre today.

I emphasize to all writers that they must read. Why? Reading takes you outside of the comfort of your writing and puts another writer’s prose on display. I’m convinced that it’s easier to spot strengths and weaknesses in another person’s writing because you don’t have the same closeness to it. It’s only when you look beyond that you start to see conventions of a genre, habits of writers (good and bad), and how to learn from it. But I’m taking that a step farther today and saying that you should read outside your genre.

reading a book

All genres have conventions. If a writer focuses solely on one genre to the exclusion of all other genres, it’s easy to get lost in the expectations of your readers. This can be good, but it makes it harder to evolve as a writer. If you’re not evolving as a writer, you stand a good chance of losing readers (unless you’re already an established writer; then your readers have come to expect the conventions you incorporate into your work). By reading outside of your genre, you expand what you’re reading and, by default, expand your bag of writing tricks. This is because you’re seeing conventions turned on its head or developed well, and you’re removed enough to learn the lesson the writing tells.
One way you’ll see if your expanded reading habits has helped your writing is to measure if you notice an increase in writing solutions to your genre’s conventions.  Suddenly, you realize that even though you’re not writing literary fiction your genre characters can have more depth. The same goes for literary fiction writers: suddenly your extremely introspective characters move forward in time with your plot.
I’d love to hear from writers what genres they write and what they read and if they think their varied reading helps their writing.

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6 responses

  1. Mitchell Zuckoff wrote the book I’m reading now, Lost in Shangi-La. If you’re a fan of well written World-War-Two-era narrative nonfiction, you should check it out. Exotic locations, survival, adventure, suspense, a touch of romance, real-life heroes–what else do you need?

  2. Caren, what immediately comes to mind is the humorous memoirs, particularly those by Nora Ephron, Ali Wentworth, Tina Fey, Calvin Trillin, Laurie Notaro and Mindy Kaling. Then the more serious ones by Caroline Knapp, Carole Raziwill and Portia de Rossi. As far as nonfiction, Mitchell Zuckoff…and oh, I read a tome about the Sydney Harbor but the title and author escape me…

  3. Hi Caren! You’re certainly right about reading someone’s work besides your own giving you better insights into what works and what doesn’t. That’s one of the benefits of being in a critique group. I’m always reading something, and I don’t limit myself to one or even a handful of genres. Whatever sounds or looks interesting, I’ll dive into it. In the past month or so, I’ve read one YA novel and four widely diverse adult novels, and I’m currently enjoying an historical nonfiction survival story. Each one of the books has given me something or a lot of things I’d like to emulate or avoid, or in some cases simply provided inspiration or an idea for taking a second look at something I’m working on.

    • Thanks for commenting Dave! I think critique groups are a great way to read outside your genre. They include the best parts of college workshops, which is reading and giving constructive feedback on your writing.
      It sounds like your reading list is wonderfully varied. This makes me so happy since many writers fall into the trap of only reading their peers work instead of including a broad swath of genres.

  4. Caren, as you know, I primarily write YA romance. For a time, it was mostly what I read, too. But I found that reading outside my genre–especially non-fiction and memoirs–helps clear my head when I’m deep in one of my own stories. I can turn off my “writer head” and just enjoy. Ultimately, I do find myself appreciating turns of phrases and dialogue and what-not, which ends up inspiring me to head back to the keyboard…

    • Thanks for sharing, Tina! I can absolutely understand why you reading non-fiction and memoirs takes you out of being in writer mode. I think you learn more from others when they’re outside your comfort area, be it YA or romance or whatever your genre of choice is.
      Any good reading recommendations for us?

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