You Need to Read to Write Well

booksMany well-known authors will admonish new authors and wannabe-authors to read, read, read. Yet, what many of them fail to make clear is why reading is so important. You’re not reading simply for the fun of it (although, that certainly helps); you’re actually reading to learn.

You need to select books that may not normally appeal to you; you need to look outside your genre and your preferences, but most off all, you need to read with awareness. You need to do more than just enjoy the story, you need to be aware of what you are reading. You need to notice the broad strokes and the details; understand and note the word choices; listen to the cadence of the author’s speech patterns; notice how the author sets the pace and note the story’s structure; pay attention to the characters and their actions and reactions; and hear the overall voice of the story. If you don’t read with awareness, you may fail to learn anything about why the book appeals or fails to appeal to you.

Enjoying books is great—I’ve enjoyed reading and books since I was about 2 or 3; however, like any artist, you need to study others in your field so that you can understand what and how they do what they do.  Writing, to me, can be every bit as complex and mystifying as a magic trick. While you’re busy watching the characters over here, the author is quickly rearranging the sets and hiding clues over there.  Therefore, to see the tricks as the magician (or author) is performing them, you need to keep your eyes and your mind open.

Some readers claim there is a formula or a predetermined framework to how stories are created, and, in some cases, that may be so. I think all good mysteries, romances, and thrillers follow a certain pattern or flow. However, I think a great story takes those same frameworks or formulas and stands them on their heads, but an author can’t do that until he or she fully understands what all the nuances and tricks are to writing a good story, first. Once you’ve discovered the secrets to building a good story, you can easily create a great one by tweaking the rules to suit yourself.

But how do you learn that formula or where can you get a copy of that structure? By reading and writing. Reading helps you identify the building blocks of a story. It shows you what is good (and bad) about plot and character development, about pace and flow, and about how much truth is required to make that fictional piece feel so real. Reading with awareness helps you see those ‘magic tricks’ so you can understand what to emulate and what to avoid when you build your own books. As you read through a story you can note the pace, the sentence and paragraph structure, and the different facets of the overall tone and voice of the piece. You need to make notes, highlight passages, and, much like you did in those long-ago, dreaded English and Literature courses in high school and college, explain why you like those passages or what is wrong with them. Explain (to yourself) what the theme of the piece was, the character’s motivations, and (yes) even the author’s motivation for writing the piece (and don’t use the old “…because they needed the money…” cop out). Really delve into the story and understand it.

And, if doing this on your own is difficult, then join a book club or reading group. These types of groups can help you refine your reading techniques and your ability to be aware of every part of that book. Reading is fun, but it’s also an exercise in understanding how to build a great story. If you want to learn to be a great author; then take the time to read…everything.

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2 thoughts on “You Need to Read to Write Well

  1. Yep, I do this all the time. Recently, I finished reading three books in a series in three weeks. However, I still don’t feel like my writing is getting better.

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    1. One of the tricks I use is to think about what in particular I’m trying to improve in my writing (pacing, dialogue, etc.), and then either read with that in mind, or think back to something I recently read where those were done really well. Once you understand why the other author’s pacing works, you can more easily see the flaws in the pacing of your own writing. (The same with character development, dialogue, scene setting, etc.) Another trick I use is to identify something I think I’m weak in and write something (anything) just focusing on that. (A lot of my blogging is to help me improve my writing, as well as to allow me to share thoughts, ideas, and inspirations with others.) Everything you write may not end in a book, a blog post, or a even a short story, but everything you write should help you improve your voice, style, and technique. Even just writing post cards or emails to friends can be way to stretch your imagination and writing skills.

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