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To Spark Genius, Read Outside Your Comfort Zone

How what you read can influence how you write

Reading works outside your usual comfort zone is a great way to spark ideas and to shake up a tendency to be too rote, traditional, or predictable when writing. If you write historical novels, for example, reading science fiction could loosen up your tendency to be a little rigid when it comes to style, or maybe it will spur ideas for setting or characterization. If you write mystery novels, reading narrative nonfiction about crimes could spark ideas for really digging into the psychology of criminals. If you write romance novels, reading mystery novels could spark ideas for more complex plots that sustain suspense or create mystery. The point is to loosen up strictures and think outside whatever genre box you may be used to thinking within.

Courtesy of
Source: Courtesy of

Here are six ways reading the opposite of what you want to write stimulates your brain:

  1. It leads to conceptual blending: Reading (or writing) something very different from your usual preference or style— exposing your brain to something it rarely sees, reads, or writes—is called “conceptual blending.” You’ve added something new to your framework, and your brain is going to try to find a way to make it fit with what you already know.
  2. It makes new connections: Even it you’re not fully conscious that it’s happening, your brain is making new connections to what it already “thinks” storytelling involves, and those new connections may lead to a breakthrough idea, a fresh way to tell a story within your chosen genre; or you may discover that you love westerns.
  3. It expands your “small-world network.” Everything you read or do or think about the art of writing creates a “small-world network” of neurons that links all those thoughts together. The larger that small-world network becomes the greater opportunities for creative ideas.
  4. It provides novelty. It may offer up an ingenious way to meld various genres.
  5. It sparks new ideas: It introduces the possibility of an original idea emerging.
  6. It surprises your brain. Reading works very similar to what you want to write may dampen your brain’s enthusiasm for reading over time. Surprise it occasionally!

Load up your summer with a variety of genres, nonfiction, science fiction, plays, poetry, essays, short story anthologies, or whatever is far from what you normally choose to read. Your brain will thank you for it later.

Happy Reading . . . and Writing!

Susan Reynolds is the author of Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer. She also coauthored Train Your Brain to Get Happy, and Train Your Brain to Get Rich.

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