Readers or writers?

By Ian Eyres, Senior Lecturer, The Open University

At the Arvon residential writing week a fortnight ago, tutor Steve Voake advised TaW teachers that ‘to write you need to read: immerse yourself in the genre as well as reading more widely’. Research has shown that while relatively few English teachers see themselves as writers, most are enthusiastic readers.

In my many conversations about writing with writers, teachers and teacher-writers in recent years, one thing that has struck me is that however strong the speaker’s claim to be a writer, the topic soon turns to reading. Most agree, at least implicitly, with Hilary Mantel’s belief that ‘actually, that’s how you become a writer, it’s through reading’. The poet, Tony Mitton takes the idea further, advising would-be writers:

‘first find your writers to emulate, first find your writer heroes, the ones you love to read, the ones that make you almost feel I’d like to write that, a bit like when you hear a musician playing a particular instrument in a particular way’.

Many talk of particular books that have inspired them – for Mantel it’s Kidnapped and Jane Eyre – others of a love of children’s books and reading in general. A quick search of all my interview files shows a very high hit rate for Enid Blyton.

A huge debt is obviously owed to public libraries. A headteacher in New Zealand talked of her childhood delight at choosing three months’ worth of books from the travelling book bus; teacher and novelist Wyl Menmuir told me how he set out to ‘work [his] way through the library, a-z’, taking ‘a yard of books each time’. The librarians gave him extra tickets.

Obviously, reading and writing are intertwined at all levels. A commonly related positive school experience is pleasure at having one’s written work displayed or placed in the library for others to read, for example, and writers are constantly rereading their own texts, both at and around the point of composition and in larger chunks as they revise.

So I should probably not have been surprised at something a teacher in Somerset told me about how she chose her next words in a shared writing session. I’d asked her to consider if to any extent she’d felt a change in her role from teacher to writer as she guided the creation of the class’s text. She reformed the question as ‘if I was writing this what would I go onto next?’ but adds that words she comes up with will be ‘probably more because I’m a reader than a writer: what would I expect as a reader to happen next in the paragraph?’ (my emphasis).

It would be interesting to explore this idea with some established writers. I suspect most would agree that they compose and read their own texts as a reader as much as as a writer. Maybe the journey from reader to writer is shorter than it seems.

Ian Eyres
Senior Lecturer
The Open University

One thought on “Readers or writers?”

  1. This is a fascinating article and I can understand why many teachers approach writing primarily as readers rather than writers, even if the two are intertwined. They will do lots of writing and possess skills in judging the standard of a piece of writing but there must be a barrier which stops them seeing themselves as Writers (capital intentional).

    I wanted to answer the question you posed at the end of the article about whether as an ‘established’ writer I’d approach my work as a reader as much as a writer and I would have to say no. The key element is that of publication which Katy Evans-Bush explores in her article ‘The Hidden life of poets’ on the Magma poetry website. Having an aim of being published does change your relationship with the poem because it makes you an active creator instead of writing for yourself. The other sea-change in altering your perception of yourself to that of writer is when someone else tells you it is worth reading. This is where most of us owe a debt to our teachers, in my case Miss Rosemary Harper who selected my short stories in junior school as being excellent. This meant taking them to the head teacher to be read and recorded on a tape-recorder so other people could listen to them.

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