How to learn to write while you’re reading


We become writers because we love to read. However, once we learn to read as writers, we can use what we learn to strengthen our own novels.

Sometimes, writers will complain that they no longer have time to read, but reading is important for writers at every stage of their careers. Writers who don’t read their colleagues risk losing touch with the genre in which they are writing as well as general fiction trends. A writer who does not read is no different from any other professional who fails to keep abreast of their field. Reading also presents opportunities for writers to observe technique, theme and other aspects of how other writers approach fiction and to learn from those observations.

How to learn to write: Read widely

All writers should read widely both within and outside of their genres as well as mixing contemporary fiction with classics. Reading widely gives writers a broader base of influences to draw on for their own writing.

Some writers may find it helpful to approach this type of reading in a methodical fashion. There are reading lists online and offline for many different types of genres and approaches, and you might find it satisfying to make plans for yourself and check off books as you read them. Other writers follow more informal plans where they alternate genres or time periods. Reading from a variety of cultures and times can result in a new richness in your own work as you bring these perspectives and a growing sense of the scope and history of literature to your writing.

You might find it helpful to keep a reading journal in which you record your impressions about the books you read. Writing your impressions as both a writer and a reader may be particularly illuminating. For example, you might read a book in which the writer side of you notices that the prose is clunky or the characters behave in an unrealistic manner, but as a reader, you still can’t put the book down. Examining how the writer isstaircase bookcase able to tell such a compelling story even while getting other aspects of the novel wrong can be a valuable exercise.

You can ask yourself questions as you read as well. Here are a few examples:

  • If this book is from outside your genre, what makes it different from books within your genre? What can you learn from it and apply to your own genre?
  • If the book is a classic, where do you see its place in literature? Did you enjoy the book? Do you think it deserves its place in the canon?
  • What are the book’s strengths and weaknesses? Consider aspects like plot, structure, character development, theme and use of language. What aspects could have been improved and in what way?

Become an expert in your genre

If you want to write historical fiction or crime fiction or romance or literary fiction or any other type of fiction, you need to become an expert in that genre. You’ve probably chosen your genre because it is what you most enjoy reading, but now you need to start reading with a writer’s brain.

Here are some more questions to consider as you read.

  • How does this book fit into your genre? Does it reinforce cliches of your genre, or does it break new ground?
  • Did you take away any new insights about your genre? For example, if you aspire to write historical fiction, you may notice that particular times or places are especially popular. Do those popular times and places still seem ripe for more stories, or do they feel tired and overused?
  • How is the book regarded within your genre? Do you agree or disagree with the prevailing assessment of it?

Examine other writers’ use of structure

Reading other writers can be an excellent way to learn structure. As you read, notice at what points the author builds suspense and creates conflict. Consider whether or not the author does so successfully and why the structure is or is not effective.

You can make a more formal exercise out of this that can teach you a great deal about structure. You can do this exercise with any book, but it is best approached with a book that is not only in the same genre as yours but similar to yours in other ways as well. For example, if you are planning to write a murder mystery from multiple viewpoints, choose a murder mystery written from multiple viewpoints. You should also choose a book that you have already read and feel has a strong structure that you can learn from.

You will need to take notes for this exercise to be effective. The easiest approach is to divide your notes by chapters as well as a rough word count. You can get a rough word count by counting the words on three separate full pages and averaging how many words are on a page. This will give you a sense of how long chapters are and at what points certain events happen that push the story forward.

To begin with, write a brief summary what happens in each chapter along with the estimated word count. You may want to look at other aspects of the structure as well. For example, for the multiple viewpoint crime novel, note what chapters and sections are in which characters’ points of view.

Either as you take notes or once you have finished the book a second time, notice where the major plot points and turning points occurred and how the author introduced them. If you do this with two or three books, you can compare how the authors build tension and introduce points of conflict. You can then use your notes to work on the structure and plotting of your own book.

Learn about character development

As with structure, you can read books with an eye to the characters. Are the characters believable, or do they seem like stereotypes? Are they underdeveloped? If so, how might the author have better developed them?

Just as you did with structure, choose a book or a few books that you felt had particularly compelling characters. Reread the books while paying particular attention to character development. Here are some questions you can consider.

  • How does each character speak? Is the dialogue believable for the character’s age, social circumstances, intelligence, and the time and place in which the story is set?
  • Does the author physically describe the character at all? If so, how is it done, and does it work?
  • Does the character have a back story? Is the back story effective in developing the character?
  • What other techniques does the author use to reveal more about the character? These techniques might include the character’s action, the way other characters react to the character and the character’s thoughts.

Examine how successful writers use language

You can learn a great deal from examining how different writers use language. Writers’ styles can vary from resembling poetry to clean, efficient prose to workmanlike sentences that may lack grace but get the job done.

virginia woolf readingTake a look at the sentence structure. Does the author vary the length and construction of sentences? How does that affect the experience of reading? For example, one technique some writers use is writing shorter, choppier sentences during an action scene to mimic the quick movements of the characters.

Here are a few things to ask yourself about the language in a novel as you are reading.

  • How would you describe the prose style?
  • Does the prose style fit the type of novel? In what way is it more or less effective than another style might be?
  • How simple or complex is the vocabulary and sentences structure? Does this have an effect on your reading of the novel?

Reading as a writer or reader

Writers sometimes complain that they are no longer able to read books simply as readers any longer and that they find it difficult to turn off their writing brain and get lost in a good novel. However, most writers have the experience from time to time of reading a book that overrides even the inner writer and returns them to the sheer joy of reading. This is also an experience worth analysing. What set the novel apart and made it so engaging, and how might that be reproduced in your writing?

The good news for writers who feel pressed for time and who are wondering if reading for pleasure is something they will have to give up is that reading is still an important part of being a writer. Reading keeps writers current with the field in which they are working as well as continuing to educate them about literature in general. Furthermore, writers can learn more about structure, character and prose from other writers and shore up weaknesses in their own work.

What have you learned about writing from reading, and how did you learn it?

(Images from here, here and here)

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  • I don’t remember Kathy and Mark – our version was called Peter and Jane (I think it was a fairly common Ladybird series).

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