All writers live by three fundamental rules—show don’t tell—don’t plagiarize—keep reading. The first rule forces us to write in ways that touch our readers—by creating word pictures—vigorously, vividly, sensuously, sentimentally, challenging and so on and on. The second crams down originality, writing words and scenes, not stealing them. The third, forming a magic triangle of good writing, insists that we read, read, and read. That raises an ethical issue. When must we read? Before putting fingers to keys? After we’ve banged out a draft, and can see its many flaws, screw-ups, and dumb phrasing? How about while we’re writing? I don’t mean simultaneously banging on the keyboard while glancing back and forth at a book leaning up against the side of the monitor. I mean while we are doing the deed—I mean writing while reading writ large.
Reading widely makes writers better at both—reading and writing. When you read, you see the text as a writing challenge. Is the book a serendipitous discovery, or a draft in want of an editor? Is the article too short by design or was the writer under deadline? Is the structure of the tome cemented in peanut butter or concrete? Why did that otherwise competent writer change voice without realizing the first person can’t be a dramatized narrator? If you do both full time and simultaneously, it becomes the yin and yang of your writing/reading life.
But what of the ethics of this combo? Reportedly, J. Hilllis Miller first coined the phrase “the ethics of reading” in the mid-1980s. He was responding to an overheated debate about “the merits of deconstruction, inaugurating the so-called ethical turn within Anglo-American literary studies.” Not to worry, we need not go that far.
There are ethical imperatives in reading.
What I mean by “the ethics of reading” is simpler, more basic. If writers read carefully, and analyze what they read in terms of understanding, explaining, expanding one’s viewpoint, and helping, then reading can itself be an ethical activity. Writers in particular multi-task while reading. We think while we read—we make judgments while we read—and we decide while reading.
We should do the same thing while we write—read the words, notions, thoughts, scenes, paragraphs as we type, and simultaneously think about what we’re rendering for our readers. Is our story, report, summary, thesis, or synopsis a “good” thing in a moral sense? Or are we promoting unethical conduct just to advance a story line? Are we glorifying racism, war, murder, or some other blight on life just for the hoot of it, without thinking about our ethical obligations to our readers? That’s enough reason to read while we write. We might catch ourselves in the act of being bad and hit delete, just in time.
 Peter D. McDonald. “The Ethics of Reading and the Question of the Novel: The Challenge of J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year.” Novel (2010) 43 (3): 483–499. https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2010-026
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.