Read Like a Writer

Photo courtesy of Nicole Honeywill at Unsplash.com

How much do you read?  More importantly…How do you read? 

Do you focus only on the content?

Reading is as critical to writing as oxygen is to fire. There are entire books written on the subject. Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose as an example (though I haven’t read that one). Stephen King emphasizes reading and how it influences our writing in On Writing and in practically every writing speech he gives.

To me, that alone deems the subject of reading important enough to discuss.

Let’s huddle, shall we, and let’s talk about reading. It’s a big deal in what we do, as writers. It’s equally important not only to read, but to read like a writer. Don’t misunderstand me, we can still read for pleasure, god knows I couldn’t do without that, but how does reading teach us to be better writers?

I’ll tell you how I do it. Maybe you can relate.

 

The first big novel I read was Cujo by Stephen King. The world burst open as I read it. I grew frustrated that I couldn’t read faster and though there were great swaths of it I didn’t understand at twelve-years-old, I devoured the words and knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, I’d found my calling.

I wanted to be a writer! Following Cujo, I read all of Stephen King’s books (there weren’t as many back then), I read Richard Matheson, John Saul… I read anything I could get my hands on. I read slow, but I read constantly. As my diversity of authors grew, I detected their different styles. Typically, when I’d write something, I’d try to write in the same style as whatever author I’d just read.

The inarguable fact is simply this… if you’re not reading, you’re not learning. And to learn from reading, you have to read through the filter of a writer. Notice things and appreciate them. Look beyond the story. Look at the decisions the writer made about how to bring the story to life.  Here are some examples of what I look for…

 

Right now, I’m reading The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy. I can’t think of a better word to describe Percy’s writing than simply elegant. It flows so well and the imagery is spectacularly clear. His use of subject-verb combinations throughout complex sentences is striking. Dear god, I wish I had half the talent he does! Here’s an example I read this morning that stuck with me:

“He grabs her by the throat with one hand and with the other scoops up the dead bird and mashes it into her mouth. That is how he leaves her, gagging out its broken body, scraping feathers from her tongue.”

Maybe I’m too easily impressed, but I love this. The imagery is crystal clear and the words flow flawlessly. I’m seeing it. Believing it. And most importantly, the writer is not in my way.

One of my personal writing struggles is the use of action verbs. I feel like I’m always using the same ones, or I can’t think of that perfect verb that brings an action to life. My characters “turn” a lot, and they “look” a lot. They also “walk” a lot. Often, they do all of these things “slowly” (one of my weasel words).

So when I read, I closely observe the writers use of verbs. I often stop when I’m struck particularly in awe of a sentence structure that resonates. I want to learn how to use action verbs better and I can only do that by reading how other writers do it.

And guess what… not every book published was well-written. Use a critical eye. You’ll get a better sense of your own style preferences which will lead to the development of your unique ‘voice’…more on that later. 

You’ll get good at reading like a writer and things will start to jump out at you. For instance, you may stop and think, good grief, this writer used the word “walked” two times in this paragraph. And, you’ll start to spot the repetitive use of weak verbs. Does this character do anything else but look at stuff? Or maybe you come across a passage like, Todd was running because he was scared. His dad was looking at him which made his heart start beating faster. And you think, my goodness, this writer uses “was …ing” on almost every verb.

Point being, you’ll start to spot things the more you read. Things you like. Things you dislike.

Most importantly, you’ll teach yourself to spot these things in your own writing.

And that, my friends, is where the magic happens.

Other things that often catch my attention are:

  • Time – How does the author take the reader and the characters through time? Is it past, present, etc.

  • Dialog – How do the characters speak?  (this is a BIG one… dialogue can bring your characters to life, or prevent the reader from connecting)

  • Perspective – First person, second person, etc.

There are an infinite number of variables you can focus on when it comes to the craft of writing.  The key is to pick one or two and make that your lesson for the day!

I invite you to share some of the books that have taught you the most and how. We’d all find your experience interesting. Most importantly, you’ll be teaching us how to hone our skill at reading like a writer.

Thanks for joining, and happy reading!