“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
– Stephen King
Writers need to read. It helps us to translate the world around us into written word. With every book/story/article read, we expand our understanding of the mechanics of writing and the art of storytelling. We’re lucky in that respect; we have the most enjoyable on-the-job training ever. What other professional can lose themselves in fiction and claim that they’re honing their skills?
But, it is not enough to simply read. Although it’s true that some knowledge will be osmosed subconsciously, it’s only when we really study great (and poor) writing that we gain any real insight into the art.
1. Read critically
Scrutinise every word, every sentence. Ask yourself why the author chose that particular phrase to convey their meaning? What does it reveal about the characters/setting/plot? Is there anything you can take away from it that will add strength to your own stories?
Reading the work of others with a critical eye is the best way to learn the craft of writing. It’ll help you to identify what does and doesn’t work about a piece. Writing shouldn’t be about reinventing the wheel. Follow the examples set by others and draw inspiration from them and, very soon, others will be drawing their inspiration from you.
When reading, it is all too easy to let your brain fall into neutral. This has the same effect as zoning out at the cinema; you may have followed the gist of what is going one but you’ve missed the subtle clues about the plot. Don’t let that happen. The best way to achieve this is to:
2. Keep a book journal
What better way to combine writing and reading than by keeping a book journal. You can do this in a notebook (one specifically for the journal, or in your writer’s notebook), on loose leaf paper, or even make note on the computer. Whatever format the journal takes, use it to record the following:
- your thoughts on the work;
- your thoughts on the characters;
- what you liked/didn’t like about it;
- what you thought worked or didn’t work; and
- any interesting quotes, phrases or words you encountered.
I know writers who prefer to fill the books they’re reading with notations, highlighting interesting passages within the body of the text. I’m not one of these people. If you come near any of my books (textbooks excluded) with a pen or highlighter, I will hurt you…badly.
3. Read with a dictionary
Words are our clay. From them, we create vast worlds, vibrate people and epic adventures (or stories about people drinking in bars). English is a hugely versatile and poetic language with an estimated (although unverifiable) word count of over 1 million words (source: joint Harvard/Google study, December 2010). But, no one can know all of them and their individual meanings without help.
The more, and the wider, you read, the higher the likelihood that you’ll encounter words you’ve never come across before. When this happens, make it a point to look up the word and study its meaning. Who knows, it may be just the word you’ve been looking for your own work.
4. Read outside your genre
When we stick to the confines of our preferred genre, we miss a world of possibilities. Think about it, if authors stuck solely to one genre we wouldn’t have such great crossovers as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Books, 2009), or American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Headline, 2001). The wider we read, the more we open ourselves to new ideas and different ways of presenting our work.