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How to Read like a Writer

Aspiring writers are told -- with good reason -- to read everything they can get their hands on. Reading familiarizes you with the shape of the genre you want to write in and its conventions and clichés; it gives you ideas for new stories; it sharpens your sense of what is good writing and what isn't. It's true that if you read enough, you'll naturally absorb a great deal of what you need to know. But there may come times when you despair of your ability to ever do a certain thing right, whether it's characterization or combat, and in times like those, it can be useful to study what you read more intensively.

The beauty of text is that there's nothing hidden. Every emotion and image that the author evokes is set down in black and white; there's nothing more to it than the text. Because of that, the text itself will tell you more about how to write than most of the writing books you'll pick up. Here are three ways to use your reading to improve your writing.
By Emily Horner
© 2005, Emily Horner

I'm not one of those writers who's constantly brimming with ideas, and when I need to seek them out, I go to books. Sometimes it's as simple as a trip to the bookstore that leaves me sighing that they don't have anything I want to read; that challenges me to define what I want to read. Other times I squeal with dismay when a book takes a perfectly fascinating loose end, one that I start spinning a plot line around, and then abandons it; or a book makes me so angry that I want to write another just to argue with it. You could go so far as to say that books make up a discourse: a writer writes a book that volleys an idea, another writer writes a book that argues with the previous one, and it goes on through the ages. There was The Lord of the Rings, and in its wake came books that said "The Lord of the Rings was so great, let's do that again," books that said "The Lord of the Rings is utterly racist and reactionary," books that said "Really, isn't it all kind of silly?" and more. There is a long, slow conversation going on, and it's fascinating to participate in it.

Finally, there's one more thing I do: I inventory my absolute favorite books, the ones that caught my imagination and never let go. When I define the stories that I'm passionate about, then it's easier to think up stories that I'll be passionate about when I try to write them. What do you read and adore? Secrets from the past? Women disguised as men? Wounded men in search of redemption? The trick is identifying the spark you love without carbon-copying your favorite book.

Plot, Character, Scene

Sometimes you can learn serendipitously about things like plot and character. I was reading Dorothy Sayers mysteries for fun when I realized that her characters, unlike mine, had reason to exist outside the plot. I read the material and thought about it, and in the end managed to figure out a few things about how she worked that much vivid characterization into a very short book.

You can approach this in a number of different ways: you can read for fun and pull out the elements that are done particularly well to analyze, or you can stop while writing a scene and go back to the books you've already read for some hints on how to do it. If you need help to write a love scene or a battle scene, you can look at the examples of other writers.

For a long time my dialogue sounded like it was between two immobile characters firing off lines at each other in a white room. I picked up some novels and looked at the balance between dialogue and action, thought, setting, and exposition, and the next time I tried to write dialogue, I modeled it after what I had read. If a novel has a particularly intriguing plot, outline it; if the characterization is particularly good, try to figure out just what makes you think so. If there's a scene that utterly tears at your heartstrings, think about why; the answer might not be within the scene at all. Fantasy author Jo Walton has talked about certain scenes as "spear points." The scene itself is a small sharp thing, not particularly distinguished, and everything leading up to the scene is the spear shaft that drives it into your heart. For that to work, the spear point still has to be sharp -- which brings us to prose.


At the level of finest detail, you can sharpen your prose by copying a favorite paragraph or two and examining them closely. It can be great fun, as well as good practice, to write a pastiche or parody of, or homage to, Hemingway, Lovecraft, or any author with a distinctive style. Read short fiction; it's incredibly hard to write an entire novel of perfectly crafted sentences, and short stories can afford to be more stylistically experimental. Here are a few ways to analyze what the author is doing:

v     Underline or highlight all the parts of speech in different colors. Of course, one balance isn't always better than another, but this will let you see why a particular choice of words might work in a certain context.

v     Mark stressed and unstressed syllables. See if the author's making use of the rhythms of poetry.

v     Look for alliteration, assonance, rhyme, and other sound devices; you may want to get a book on poetry writing or criticism to help with this.

v     Look at the choice of words and images, and what effect they have.

v     Look at the sentence structure: what's the most important part of each sentence, and where does it fall?

It may help to look at the work with an eye for critique, wondering how you would make it better, but for me -- especially if I really love the prose -- it's better to look at it with a more detached view. Before identifying something as a "mistake," just because you've been told never to use the passive voice or to be very stingy with adverbs, consider what effect it has. Consider whether the author might have had a good reason for the choice. Even the greatest authors make missteps, but great art has rarely been made by sticking dogmatically to prescribed formulas.

If you want a deeper overview of the things I noted above, I highly recommend The Art of Fiction by John Gardner; no other book I've read pays as much attention to the small details of good writing. If you have the patience to put up with it, you might also want to look into a book that explains how to do literary criticism; How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster, is actually surprisingly fun. Unfortunately, I need to stay away from these books more often than not, or I have nightmares about unwittingly promoting fascist and patriarchal ideals in my fiction.

Art students don't spend all of their time creating original works; they also spend countless hours studying and copying the masters. There's no need for you to spend all your free time typing out your favorite book -- but if you're stuck, you may find that there's something to be gained from studying other people's work.

Books Mentioned

The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien. Del Rey. 0345340426 (boxed edition)

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. John Gardner. Vintage. 0679734031 (reissue edition)

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. Thomas C. Foster. Perennial Currents. 006000942X

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