As you know—we talk about how important reading is to great writing all the time. It’s one of the vital elements for any author. But why is reading like a writer important? And what, exactly, does that mean?
You, as so many have, might have fallen in love with books as a child, which is what brought you to wanting to write them in the first place. Most authors I know talk with glee about the stories they loved as children (me included). How we raced off with The Black Stallion or solved mysteries with Nancy Drew.
And one thing we know for true is that the more you read as a child, and the more you read now, has a huge impact on the voice of your own work today.
For all the reasons discussed here.
But how, exactly, does one read like a writer?
As a book editor, I teach my writers to look for these 3 key points:
֍ Study the Structure
Now, we want to take a forest and the trees approach here. In other words:
Study the overall structure. This is the arc of the storyline, how you get from opening scene to The End. Outline this as you go, in order to keep the overall scheme of things in mind. See where the author succeeded, and where he failed.
Does the book move? Or does it bog down in a slogging middle? By keeping an outline handy as you go, you can tell how the author kept the story progressing (this has to do with plot points), and where he lost the oomph.
Then, take the individual scenes and dissect them. You know the elements of a scene, right? But scenes are unwieldy things, aren’t they? Sometimes they contain all aspects of a scene. Sometimes they leave the hero dangling off a cliff.
So now, as you’re reading like a writer, what kept you turning pages, and where did you drift off?
֍ What Makes for an Interesting Character?
Now, some characters you might love, and some, you might love to hate.
But the important question is, why is he interesting in the first place? What do his actions show about who he is? What does his internal dialogue reveal about him? Also, what do the others say about him?
Study his dialogue. How does what he says deepen him? What is revealed through his spoken words that might be different from who he says he is? Does he say what he really means?
What do the secondary characters say about him?
Often, the most interesting folks have a bit of a disconnect in who they think they are, and who they really are. Find that discrepancy.
How does he change and grow? To be an effective protagonist, not only must he save the day in some way, but he must grow as well. And in a believable way—people don’t have wholescale changes. But growth and change come through the natural events of the story.
֍ Look for Moments
All great works have them. They’re what’s needed for the magic to live in the story, the characters, and the prose.
These moments almost always come through the writer’s unique way with words—i.e., voice—and are the culmination of building up to a peak.
As a book editor, I counsel my writers to look for those places that touch them, the ones that cause them to pause and say, well, wow.
Here’s a passage to illustrate the point:
“They were running on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved liked phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and turned and leapt in a silence such that they seemed of another world entire.”—The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy
Story, character, voice—the elements that go into great writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. Published authors know that the more you read, the more the intricacies of these elements become apparent, and the more you can expand them into your own work.
Because you can study the art of writing—the pieces of it—until the cows come home and it still not sink in. Rather, it’s when we study the writing itself—when we’re reading like a writer—that these pieces become intuitive. They burrow deeply into a writer’s bones, coming back out on the page naturally, where they’re needed, and in the manner, they’re needed.
As a novelist and teacher Francine Prose says, “Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, a comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?”—Reading Like a Writer