Writers write. Writers read?

In a comment to an earlier post, Eric reminded me that in addition to writing, writing, writing, becoming a better writer involves reading, reading, reading.  With which I wholeheartedly agree.  It makes perfect sense, right?  A writer needs to be familiar with her craft, with what is currently being produced.  Moreover, why would someone who is not an avid reader want to be a writer in the first place?

Nevertheless, something has been bothering me about this axiom.  What exactly about reading will make me a better writer?

Let me clarify; is there something specific I should be concentrating on while I read?  Because, if a book is well written with an engaging story, I usually become so wrapped up in it that I forget to pay attention to how the author constructs the tale.  Heck, this is the case even if it is not terribly well written – as long as the story is interesting enough.

Like I say, it makes sense that reading is an essential element of the craft of writing.  What I am concerned with are the particulars.  How can I ensure that I am fully extracting the benefits of the process of reading?  Should I be dissecting the dialogue?  Analyzing the plot?  Critiquing the characters?

I suspect that the answer will become clearer once I am in the trenches with the actual writing process.  At the moment, apart from my academic writing, I have not really gained any momentum with my creative writing.  First, I must finish my dissertation.  *sigh*  (However, I am interested to find out how my academic writing skills will translate to a creative mode.)

Part of me wonders if it works a bit like osmosis: I read and subconsciously absorb ideas, techniques and suggestions.  None of which I will notice until I am actually writing.

I welcome any thoughts, ideas or pointers on this concept.  In the meantime, I have decided that one method that may help me is to review the books I read once I have finished them.  Perhaps this will force me to be more reflective regarding the manner in which the author engineered his or her story.  I have never really done this before, so it will definitely be a learning process – attempting to critique from a writer’s perspective, but hopefully this will aid in making me a better writer.

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Categories: Random Ruminations, Reading, The Process, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Writers write. Writers read?

  1. It’s more like the osmosis, generally, but you can focus if you want. You read, and you subconsciously recognize what worked in that book, what character types you enjoyed, and many times, what situations/plot points you can steal. Sometimes, yeah, you can read to study what worked and how the writer wrote and so on. Usually, I find that, when i want to do this with more focus, I read once for enjoyment then once again for analysis. In my fiction writing degree program, there’s a whole semester dedicated to writer mimicry. We read pieces from, say, Kafka, Wolf, the Bible, Shakespeare, and so on, and either try to adopt their writing style or their plot/characters/story, or both, and create our own piece, trying to see what we can learn from these writers and getting a clearer view of our own writing styles/voice. It’s an interesting exercise and can yield some rather interesting stories that are, though mimicking, very much the student writer’s work.
    When it comes to focus, decide if there’s something you want to focus on. If the writer is known for poetic prose, and you want to make your words sing more, then maybe you read for the poetry. Maybe you have a writer who’s very good at writing thrillers and want to learn how to incorporate a thriller’s page turning quality into your work. And maybe, you’ve got a writer you know nothing about and just want to read a good story. That works too, since you’ll still pick up something by the time you finish. A lot of it’s personal choice. Do you recognize you need to improve your dialogue? Pick up a few books that are totally dialogue driven with very realistic conversations. Do you want to, say, write a hardboiled Noir P.I. in, say, Victorian England? Read a lot of hardboiled Noir stories, a few mysteries, and books taking place in Victorian England, then pick up a few non-fictions about crime and Victorian England.
    Also, not all of reading is reading what’s in your field. I’m more of a genre writer, but occasionally, I’ll pick up a more literary work to stretch my boundaries, or I’ll pick up a straight-up romance, something I never write, or a non-fiction/biographical book. For the literary, I’m usually looking at word choice, for the romance, what sells and character relationships that click with readers, and the non-fiction/biographical for situations, stories, and events I can mine for my own stuff. A lot of reading is forcing yourself beyond your norm.
    I always find it baffling, those published authors who say, no, they don’t ever read anymore. And what’s funny is you can tell that they don’t. After a little while without reading, all of a writer’s work tends to start sounding the same, using the same vocabulary, going down the same story rut. So, if nothing else, you read to keep your work fresh and new.

    • Wow! Thank you so much for that detailed response. All kinds of goodies in it to mull over. Now that you mention it, I do remember, way back when, having a poetry class with mimicry assignments. I remember them being difficult but rewarding. I will also keep your focus suggestions in mind – I generally find dialogue challenging, and when I get down to writing, I am prepared to discover many other areas in which I can improve. And reading outside of my genre is something I do not frequently do, but probably something into which I should put more effort. At the moment, I am just excited to be able to read fiction again. Thanks again for all the pointers!

      • Well, if dialogue is a difficulty, I’d suggest studying screenplays, television and movies, and picking up a book or two on screenplay writing. Some of the best advice for writing good, functional dialogue that sounds realistic I’ve ever come across was in books on screenplay writing.
        You’re welcome!

        • Oh, yeah, a screenplay writing book. I hadn’t considered that. Another good idea! Thanks!

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