A generic piece of advice I have heard from writers more times than I can or care to count when discussing how to improve as a writer and storyteller is 'to constantly read (and to read everything) and to constantly write'. This is an axiom nearly every panelist at the recent PAX East convention involved in either writing for games or writing about games trumpeted as a foregone and obvious conclusion. Over time and with much consideration I have come to the conclusion that this simple piece of advice is as easy to understand as it is woefully incorrect. Without a doubt there is much to be said for practicing any craft, and I am in no way saying one can or should avoid practice—one cannot, for example, study the sport of basketball for years and then expect to step onto a court and be instantly great. However, practice is only worthwhile when what one practices is representative of good habits; practicing what is representative of bad habits does nothing more than strengthen a connection with doing things incorrectly.
The 'read everything' mantra has a massive inherent flaw: it overlooks the fact that the quality of what is being read is completely disregarded. I will grant that there is something to be gained from reading bad writing, recognizing what makes it bad and therefore mentally bookmarking what you will avoid doing in your own works, but this endeavor need not be pursued in perpetuum, viz., once you have recognized a technique as bad, seeing it again does not add any additional value—it only serves to waste your time. To put this another way, what value there is in reading bad writing to comprehend what one should not do should be fully realized by the end of grade school, at which point there is no further benefit of reading bad writing other than for amusement. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that nearly all writing is bad.
The vast majority of writing available to be read falls into one of three categories:
1. A work that has valuable content that is communicated poorly--the rarest of the three.
2. A work that is communicated effectively but has poor content--the most dangerous of the three.
3. A work that has poor content AND is communicated poorly--the most prevalent of the three that has its own subcategories of ignorance, overconfidence, and greediness (to name a few).
In a sense what we are looking at here is the quality of thought, the quality of craft, and motivation. It is so rare to find a work that embodies quality ideas conveyed effectively through a mastery of the craft of writing that originates from pure motivation (by which I mean if the author was told by a time traveler that writing and publishing a work would make him no money and bring him a great deal of ridicule for the duration of his lifetime he would nevertheless write and publish the work—essentially the story behind nearly all of our greatest philosophical doctrines, minus the time traveler of course). So by 'reading everything,' all one accomplishes is at best wasting his time and at worst mistaking bad techniques for good techniques and so errantly embedding bad techniques into his own style. I would contend that it is a far better use of one's time to hone the skill of distinguishing effective writing from ineffective writing—a skill which is achieved by thinking far more than it is by reading—than to spend hours entertaining the floundering works of authors who either have nothing of value to say, lack the skill to say what they wish to, or are impurely motivated.
The concept of 'constantly writing' as a method of improving one's skill as a writer is similarly flawed. A person who cannot recognize what makes writing effective versus ineffective is certainly not going to improve by increasing the volume of his ineffective output; indeed, this serves only to reinforce bad habits. Yet even one who does have an excellent sense of what makes writing effective or ineffective cannot write anything of quality if he has nothing of substance to say. Finding something of substance to say is not accomplished through writing, it is accomplished through thinking. Even the most prolific, florid writing is of no real value if there is nothing meaningful that underlies the work; and even the most affluent writer must first think and allow an idea to crystallize to the point that he can say with complete confidence originating from the purest motivation that his idea is ready to be communicated; a talented writer, as far as craft is concerned, who communicates a flawed or poorly thought-out idea is a dangerous influence indeed, especially given how easily most people are readily convinced of things on the basis of perceived authority and ornate presentation.
In summation, at least as far as writing as an art is concerned, one should write only when he has an excellent idea to convey, and he is better off to hone the effectiveness of his conveyance through earnest reflection and thought rather than through reading, which pursuit should be taken up only when he has reached a dead-end as far as his thoughts will take him, and even then he should only read works from that tiny percentage of books that meet the three criteria previously discussed in terms of content, communication, and motivation. This is a philosophy I developed many years ago, long before I stumbled upon a fantastic essay by Arthur Schopenhaur entitled On Thinking for Oneself, which, much to my enjoyment, eloquently depicted a philosophy nearly identical to the one I had developed on my own (a wonderful circumstance which, in the general sense, serves as excellent confirmation of the righteousness of an idea). I'll conclude this philosophical discourse with one of the finer quotes from that work:
"Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself; it means letting someone else direct your thoughts. Many books, moreover, serve merely to show how many ways there are of being wrong, and how far astray you yourself would go if you followed their guidance. You should read only when your own thoughts dry up, which will of course happen frequently enough even to the best heads; but to banish your own thoughts so as to take up a book is a sin against the holy ghost; it is like deserting untrammeled nature to look at a herbarium or engravings of landscapes."