“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
– Stephen King
All of the muses love to read. Some take it further and analyse what we’re reading. And then there’s Kirsten… Kirsten, not content to simply read, poses with novels in a series of author selfies.
But I digress.
Writers need to read. It helps us to translate the world around us into written word. With every book/story/article read, we expand our understanding of the mechanics of writing and the art of storytelling. We’re lucky in that respect; we have the most enjoyable on-the-job training ever. What other professional can lose themselves in fiction and claim that they’re honing their skills?
But, it is not enough to simply read. Although it’s true that some knowledge will be osmosed subconsciously, it’s only when we really study great (and poor) writing that we gain any real insight into the art.
Scrutinise every word, every sentence. Ask yourself why the author chose that particular phrase to convey their meaning? What does it reveal about the characters/setting/plot? Is there anything you can take away from it that will add strength to your own stories?
Reading the work of others with a critical eye is the best way to learn the craft of writing. It’ll help you to identify what does and doesn’t work about a piece. Writing shouldn’t be about reinventing the wheel. Follow the examples set by others and draw inspiration from them and, very soon, others will be drawing their inspiration from you.
When reading, it is all too easy to let your brain fall into neutral. This has the same effect as zoning out at the cinema; you may have followed the gist of what is going one but you’ve missed the subtle clues about the plot. Don’t let that happen. The best way to achieve this is to:
Keep a book journal
What better way to combine writing and reading than by keeping a book journal. You can do this in a notebook (one specifically for the journal, or in your writer’s notebook), on loose leaf paper, or even make note on the computer. Whatever format the journal takes, use it to record the following:
- your thoughts on the work;
- your thoughts on the characters;
- what you liked/didn’t like about it;
- what you thought worked or didn’t work; and
- any interesting quotes, phrases or words you encountered.
I know writers who prefer to fill the books they’re reading with notations, highlighting interesting passages within the body of the text. I’m not one of these people. If you come near any of my books (textbooks excluded) with a pen or highlighter, I will hurt you…badly.
Read with a dictionary
Words are our clay. From them, we create vast worlds, vibrate people and epic adventures (or stories about people drinking in bars). English is a hugely versatile and poetic language with an estimated (although unverifiable) word count of over 1 million words (source: joint Harvard/Google study, December 2010). But, no one can know all of them and their individual meanings without help.
The more, and the wider, you read, the higher the likelihood that you’ll encounter words you’ve never come across before. When this happens, make it a point to look up the word and study its meaning. Who knows, it may be just the word you’ve been looking for your own work.
Read outside your genre
When we stick to the confines of our preferred genre, we miss a world of possibilities. Think about it, if authors stuck solely to one genre we wouldn’t have such great crossovers as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Books, 2009), or American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Headline, 2001). The wider we read, the more we open ourselves to new ideas and different ways of presenting our work.
Great post, Chris, but I’m going to throw in one caveat. When I first read any book, I don’t WANT to read it like a writer. I want to enjoy the story like any other reader for pleasure. If it I love it, THEN I go back and dissect it and do all the things you so aptly suggest. My two cents.
I feel the same way, Marcy. Well, I try to read for pleasure. I know I’m reading a good book if I’m not trying to edit it as I’m reading. Those books are surprisingly few and far between these days. Editing has made me a very picky reader.
I’m sure it is hard to not edit and you read, Michelle. I can also tell fairly early if it’s a novel that I will want to go back and analyze, but all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. I want to read to enjoy FIRST.
You do make a great point Marcy. I unfortunately find myself unable to switch off my editor mind as I read through others work and, as a result, find it difficult to read solely for pleasure.
This post makes an essential point, and these are all very good suggestions.I’m one of those people who does prefer to write in the book itself, mainly because it’s easier for me to locate the passages I reacted to (I can just flip through the book), and because it feels more like I’m talking with/back to the author (for example, I can circle a word and write something like “Are you kidding me?” or “This sucks” or “Wow, what you did there was amazing.” I want to remember my specific reaction, because that tells me what effect the writer achieved (which is, for me, the point).
Sometimes, when I want to look at how a section or story or chapter is structured, I’ll create a gloss by labeling each shift in writing strategy in the margin: dialogue here, description next, exposition, flashback, etc. Another great way to examine the style of a writer is to take a passage–even a few sentences or a paragraph–and revise it to see how that changes the feel of the writing. For example, what if Melville rather than writing “Call me Ishmael” had written My name is Ishmael or Ishmael is what they call me. When I do that, I see right away that the sentence is a command that also raises questions: Is that his real name? Is he hiding his identity? Is he afraid of something? Can I trust him? How does it change the rhythm of the writing to alter the sentence? Doing this also helps smash some of those “rules” such as “Shorter is always better” or “Don’t begin a sentence with ‘x'” I get to see how much the way something is written matters.
I enjoy the post.
That’s real interactive reading! Sucks that most of my books are electronic these days because that sounds like a great way to read, at least for the second time through. Like Marcy I usually try to read for pleasure, though that’s been a bit harder in the last few years.
That is a reservation I have about ebooks, though I’ve heard some readers allow you to make marginal comments. As far as the first readthrough issue, I’m such a slow reader that I can pretty much to both: read for pleasure and make notes. I mean, I’m really slow…lol
I’m a slow reader like yourself and I find it really integrates your mind with the text. These days, I’m a big fan of audiobooks especially where the classics are concerned but that has throttled back my ability to take notes.
I don’t agree with the notations in the margins though. Defacing a book should be one of the seven deadly sins, with a special place reserved somewhere warm for those who do it to MY books. That being said, if it works for you then have at it. I’ll even supply the highlighters *Disclaimer: highlighters not available outside of, or inside, the United Kingdom*
I also enjoy being a slow reader. And I understand the reluctance to “deface” the text. But I think of a book less as something sacred or inviolate or even completed. What’s been published on the page is something like half of a conversation, one that I complete when I read and talk back to the writer through the notes I make. In fact, to me it would be a fun project to collect highlighted/annotated copies of a particular book and compare what the various readers had to say. I know, I’m kind of strange.
You make a very good argument in favour of margin notes. I think the main reason that I don’t mark books is so that I am not influenced by my first (second/third/ninety-ninth) impression on a subsequent read through.
There is no better feeling in the world than marking up the margins in a book. Reading your markups 5, 10, 15 years later is an eye-opening experience too. It a beautiful way to track your growth and change in thought process. And, as you pointed out, keeping track of passages that stirred a reaction.
By the way, I attempted to replicate this experience with ebooks and it was excruciating. Cannot wait for the day when ebooks are interactive and one can write in the margins with a stylus. *sigh* A girl can dream…
Fantastic post, Chris! You made several excellent posts.
I write in the margins of my ebooks all the time. Getting the tipex off the iPad is a nightmare though. Hmmm…maybe there’s an app for that…?
First, I have to say. I truly believe you should read more than you write. Reading makes you a better writer. Period. 🙂 And I have to explain my reading selfies…as a historical romance author I participated in an event on social media to bring historical romance into the limelight. All the romance authors who participated in the event posted a selfie reading their first or favorite historical romance novel and tagged it: #FallBackInTime. I had to participate because it is my favorite genre to read…and write. ❤
Very good points. Lately, I have been reading some stories that are off the beaten path for me. I find that I pay more attention to the writing than I normally do and I do think that is helping me.
It’s funny how much we focus on the writing style and author’s voice when we read outside our usual genres. I can’t champion it enough. Even the really terrible stuff teaches us something new about our own work.
I read all the time. I try to sometimes read outside my comfort zone because it exposes me to new styles of writing. Sometimes it works out pretty good and sometimes not. Although, now I’m starting to pay more attention to the grammar in the books I read because apparently, when I read, I don’t see it.
Poor grammar in published works is the one thing that always sets my teeth on edge. It’s like a road hump for the eye. I find that reading outside of my comfort zone allows me to appreciate how other writers tackle problems of plot, description, and characters. It also introduces you to new ways of looking at the world that you may have missed by sticking inside your own genre.