Quote Origin: Read, Read, Read. Read Everything — Trash, Classics, Good and Bad, and See How They Do It
William Faulkner? Stephen King? R. M. Allen? Lavon Rascoe? Lauren Passell? Ben Yagoda? Anonymous?
Question for Quote Investigator: A prominent novelist was once asked for advice by an aspiring author. The scribe offered the following crucial guidance:
Read, read, read. Read everything.
Highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow material were all deemed acceptable choices for scrutiny. Would you please help me to find out the name of this sage? It might be celebrated U.S. writer William Faulkner or popular horror maestro Stephen King.
Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1949 William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Two years earlier in April 1947 he spoke about writing to students of the English Department at the University of Mississippi. He delivered advice during a question and answer session. Boldface added to excepts by QI:¹
Q: What is the best training for writing? Courses, experience, or what?
Faulkner: Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.
The text above is from “Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner 1926–1962”. This book reprinted notes taken by student R. M. Allen who was present when Faulkner spoke.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In Summer 1951 another version of the question and answer session appeared in “The Western Review: A Literary Quarterly”. This text was prepared by Lavon Rascoe. The phrasing of Faulkner’s comment about reading differs slightly:²
Q. What is the best training for writing? Courses in writing? Or what?
A. Read, read, read! Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it is good you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.
In 1983 Martin Kreiswirth published “William Faulkner: The Making of a Novelist”, and he included the quotation together with a note pointing to “LG”, i.e., “Lion in the Garden”:³
So, many years later, Faulkner himself would advise young writers to engage in a similar program: “Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master” (LG, p. 55).
In 1985 “The Writer’s Quotation Book: A Literary Companion” edited by James Charlton included an entry for the quotation based on the version in “Lion in the Garden”.⁴
In 2000 Stephen King published “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”. He argued that skilled writers must read extensively:⁵
You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true.
King repeated his point for emphasis:
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that . . .
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in.
In 2013 the blog of bookseller “Barnes and Noble” published a piece titled “Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules For Writers”. The seventh rule reprinted a statement from “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”:⁶
7. Read, read, read. “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
The three-word phrase “Read, read, read” presented immediately above did not appear in King’s book “On Writing”. The phrase was from Lauren Passell who write the blog article.
Also, in 2013 Professor of Journalism and English at the University of Delaware Ben Yagoda published “How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them”. He highlighted the importance of reading:⁷
What I do try to tell all students is that if they want to be good writers, they should start reading as much as they can, starting now. And they should read all kinds of things.
Yagoda reprinted Faulkner’s advice, but he added a cautionary note:
But things have changed. People nowadays read and write huge amounts of online stuff — texts, tweets, e-mails, blog posts, and so forth.
Yagoda indicated that text which has been selected and processed by an editor is more beneficial to learners:
For some reason, the stuff that helps your own writing has to have some measure of the traditional structure. It can be in print or online, can be any kind of book or any kind of article, but it seems to need to go through the old-fashioned pipeline.
In conclusion, William Faulkner deserves credit for the quotation under examination. Other writers such as Stephen King and Ben Yagoda have also expressed the necessity of reading widely.
Image Notes: Silhouette of a person reading from Aaron Burden at Unsplash.
Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Kelvin Muchiri whose essay about reading and writing on the Medium platform led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.
 1980, Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner 1926–1962, Edited by James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate, Year: 1947, Interview: Classroom Statements at the University of Mississippi, Start Page 52, Quote Page 55, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Verified with scans)
 1951 Summer, The Western Review: A Literary Quarterly Published at the State University of Iowa, Volume 15, Number 4, An Interview with William Faulkner, Edited by Lavon Rascoe, (Interview was conducted in April 1947), Start Page 300, Quote Page 301, Published by the State University of Iowa, Iowa City. (Verified on paper in 1967 reprint from Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York)
 1983, William Faulkner: The Making of a Novelist by Martin Kreiswirth, Chapter 1: The Will to Create, Quote Page 6, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia. (Verified with scans)
 1985, The Writer’s Quotation Book: A Literary Companion, Edited by James Charlton, Revised and expanded, Quote Page 49, Pushcart Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
 2000, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, Section: On Writing, Chapter 1, Quote Page 147, Scribner, New York. (Verified with scans)
 Website: B&N Reads, Article title: Good Advice: Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules For Writers, Article author: Lauren Passell, Date on website: March 22, 2013, Website description: blog Barnes and Noble bookseller. (Accessed barnesandnoble.com on May 2, 2023) link
 2013, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them by Ben Yagoda, Part 1: How to Not Write Bad: The One-Word Version, Quote Page 17, Riverhead Books, New York. (Verified with scans)