Reading Like a Writer: Reading with Purpose Improves Your Writing
Here’s a guest post from writing coach and writer Jana Van der Veer. She shares lots of specific ideas for honing our writing skills with focused reading and analysis of work by authors we admire. Please enjoy! – AMC
We all know that writers are exhorted to read often, especially in their genre. And that sort of subliminal hoovering up of story and language is absolutely necessary and valuable for a writer. But writers also need to read like a writer. What does that mean? It means to read with attention, and intention. To read not just for story, but for how the author created specific effects. To break down how the author did it, and try to apply it to your own work. A big part of my MFA program was dedicated to this, and it proved invaluable to my development as a writer.
Too often, though, it feels like homework. Where to begin? Do you have to do it every time you read? Won’t that take the fun out of reading?
Not at all! In fact, it’s best to do it with a book you’ve already read, and a story you know well. That way you won’t be hampered by the questions that come up in a reader’s mind: What will happen when… What if she… How will they get out of this one? You will already know all that, and be ready to look deeper.
Start with your weakness
The best place to start is with your own weaknesses as a writer. If you know, say, that your dialogue always sounds wooden and clunky, then take a book where the author does dialogue especially well. You don’t even have to read the whole book to get this. Just flip to a section where there’s some dialogue, and then:
- Read a few paragraphs to see how the author sets it up. Where does it take place? What is going through the mind of the point of view character? If it’s omniscient, how does the author set the scene?
- Read the dialogue. How does it start? How do you know which character is speaking? (What are their verbal tics?) How does the author handle attributions (said, whispered, etc.)?
- How does the author intersperse bits of action? What is the purpose? How does it show the character in some way? E.g., Are the hands trembling? Are they looking away? Calmly making a PB &J sandwich while discussing murder?
- Note any descriptions the author uses – is the voice flat? Shrill? Adjectives may be used to convey tone, but they should be used sparingly.
- How does the dialogue show character? Is one person witty, but constantly using their wit as a defense against other characters, or against showing their real emotion? Is one character terse? Why? What are the speakers hiding from each other? How do you know they’re hiding something?
- How does the dialogue end? How is the beginning and ending different from regular speech, and why?
You get the picture. Keep flipping through the book and analyzing dialogues this way. Maybe look at a couple of other books and see how that author handles dialogue. You can do this for any element of craft (setting/description; character interiority, showing vs. telling, etc.) and think up questions that will allow you to analyze how the author does it.
Analyze the big arcs and the small scenes
You can also examine aspects of the story on a book-length level, like character arcs and story structure, or it can be on a very specific effect from a particular scene.
For structure (the Action Arc), what are the main scenes? Where is the inciting incident? The midpoint? The climax? What is the resolution? Why is it satisfying (or not)? You can keep drilling down into the scenes, and even write a scene map so you can see exactly where the high points of dramatic tension are, and how everything hangs together.
For character (the Emotional Arc) follow the character arc. What is the main character like at the beginning? How do you know? What beliefs do they hold that will be challenged? What do they want at the beginning? Does it change? When? Why? What are their flaws, or wounds? How do those create problems for the character in dealing with the main story problem? Does the character get what they want by the end? How do they need to change in order for that to happen? Or is there no change?
For individual scenes, examine the structure as well: How did the author enter the scene? How did they build tension? What was the climax, and the resolution?
Photo by David Iskander via Unsplash
Analyze the reader’s emotional journey in the scene: How exactly did the author keep you in tense, nail-biting suspense? Or engender a feeling of horror and disgust? Or make you feel the eroticism of a scene? When analyzing scenes for emotional effects, you have to get very granular: What are the specific words used? Are the sentences long or short? How does the author convey the emotions through the thoughts and actions of the characters? What is the punctuation used, and how does it contribute to the effect?
The purpose of all this isn’t to make you sound like a copy of any other writer. You will bring your own voice and sensibility to your work. As you read, think about how you will apply what you’re learning to your own writing. Then, practice. Writing is experiential. You learn by doing. Sure, we might learn some of it by osmosis, from voracious reading. But by learning to read like a writer, with active, focused attention, you will learn ten times faster than by fumbling around and hoping to stumble upon effective ways of telling the story.
If all this feels too much like work – don’t worry, it’s not. It’s fun! Once you see how you can apply it and immediately improve your own writing, you’ll be hooked.
Plus, you can always still read for fun. I promise, it won’t be ruined.
Jana Van der Veer is a writer and Author Accelerator-certified book coach at Set Your Muse on Fire, where she helps writers write – and finish! – the book of their dreams through inspiration, accountability, and development of story craft.