The Simple Way to Learn From the Best Writers: Reading as a Writer
We’re often told as writers that we should read widely, and we should “read as writers”. But what does that actually mean? Does it mean if you read enough, some kind of magic osmosis happens and you just become a better writer? Does it mean you have to analyze every single thing you read and pick it to bits like you are in a college literature class?
In my experience, it means developing the skills of critical and analytical reading that teach you stuff about writing. Your methods should be constructive and useful, not ones that are tiresome and tedious.
Why should you learn these skills as a writer? It’s hard to get better on your own. You could do an MFA, or attend writing workshops, or pay a developmental editor. But those come to an end, or are expensive. By teaching yourself through your reading, you’re learning skills that last forever, and that will actually keep building. You’re learning from your heroes, the best in your genre, plus if you explore novels and stories by writers outside of your genre, you will learn even more. It allows you to focus on particular skills. For example, if you struggle with setting and description, you could read and examine a book by James Lee Burke, and then a historical novel by a writer like Bernard Cornwell.
So how do you go about this process? There are two stages of “preparing the groundwork”: this is the first. Start by choosing a novel by one of your favorite writers, one you’ve ready fairly recently. Without opening it, write down what you enjoyed most about it. What stood out to you as the best aspects? It might be an engaging or charismatic main character, it could be a pacey, page-turning plot. It might be the world-building. Try to pin down the main things you thought the writer did really well. Now do this for several other novels that you think are well-written.
The second stage is to focus on your own writing. What do you struggle with? Do you have trouble achieving deep point of view? Is your setting and description too bland? Have you had feedback that your writing voice is inconsistent or almost non-existent? Do all of your characters sound the same? Write down the elements you feel you are weaker in, and describe briefly what the problems are and what you want to improve.
This may seem like a lot of preparatory work, but remember you are going to be building skills over a long period of time, skills that will continue to help you and will develop and grow. It’s like trying to paint a room without preparing the walls first. It’ll be faster but it won’t “stick” as well.
The next step is to match up your weakness, the element you want to improve, and match it to a novel where you think the writer has achieved a high level of writing in that aspect. Take the novel to a copy machine and photocopy 20–30 pages. Very often, the first 20–30 are the best. All of the writer’s skills are on display — they have to work hard to engage their readers and those early chapters are like a showcase.
Now grab a pile of colored highlighters and pens. Focus first on the element you are most interested in. If you are digging into dialogue, highlight every line of dialogue in those pages. The key is to use a different color for each major character, and perhaps one other color for all the minor characters. If your element is setting and description, highlight every bit of it — use one color for character descriptions, another for setting, another for things such as weather and atmosphere — you get the drift. If you want to focus on deep point of view in the main character, highlight every thought in one color, every emotion in another, gut reactions in another, and so on.
Now forget about the story, and read only the bits you have highlighted. Ask yourself — what has the writer done? What words have they used? How have they used them? What nouns and verbs? Nouns and verbs are usually the strongest words that hold the rest of the sentence up. What adjectives? Are they adjectives that are working hard, that are evocative and compelling? Do they earn their place? If there are adverbs, what job are they doing?
What are the lengths of the sentences? Do they vary? Do they flow? Do they emphasize? With dialogue, do the characters sound different? What words does the writer use to convey this? How do the rhythms of what people say differ? How does the writer create a line of dialogue that doesn’t need an adverb tag?
Voice is one of the most difficult things to pin down, yet we know it when we read it. We say, “The voice of the character just pulled me in — I wanted to get to know them.” When you carry out close reading on a novel where the voice is strong, by highlighting all the words and phrases that contribute to the creation of that voice, you will start to understand on a micro-level how it is done.
Once you start close reading as a writer, you will learn something from every book you examine in this way. No, it won’t ruin your reading (well, it might at first, but you will get past that). It may even lead to you reading every novel more deeply and with more enjoyment, as your reader’s mind loves the story experience and your writer’s mind notes the best bits for later.
There is also value in applying this close reading to a novel you think is bad or that you didn’t enjoy. You are one reader of many — what has the writer done that engages readers other than you? Or perhaps you might even learn what not to do by examining writing done badly.
There are also ways of applying what you learn to your own writing through exercises — writing out a page or two of a novel by hand to “feel” the rhythms of a passage of writing, or setting yourself a writing exercise such as writing two pages of your novel in the voice of a character from someone else’s novel. You should do this for a range of writers, not just one, because you are much less likely to accidentally plagiarize. If one of your weaknesses is rhythm and flow in the writing, turn a page of your novel into a poem and rework it in that form.
Once you begin this process and treat it seriously as part of learning your craft, you will very likely find yourself reading more widely in order to expand your range of knowledge. You will also find yourself marking passages in books as you read, in order to come back later and close-read them. Don’t interrupt your immersion and enjoyment of a story — save your close reading for the second time around.