February 23, 2022 by Carol Brennan King
Reading Like a Writer
If you want to write, you must read! And intentionally, with your eyes peeled, as my father used to say.
- Read the genre you write in – not just that genre, but for sure read books like you want to write. You need to familiarize yourself with what is out there like your book so you have a sense of what sell, and what the standard looks like.
- I know people talk about the classics, but read what has been published within the last three years. When you are ready to send your book out, among the many things you will be asked to do are the following two: know what it will compete with. (That’s why you read books recently published in your genre. And you will want to know who is publishing books like yours, so pay attention now to who’s publishing in your genre.
- And take it from me, you need to research to write your books. I do tons of research online – fast and easy (sometimes.) But there is nothing like having a book you can read and reread and dig deep into for things related to your book. Yesterday I rejoiced to find a book written over a hundred years ago, but it helped me no end to really find the answers I was looking for.
- Go into bookstores. I know, you might be tempted to come out with an armload of books and a lighter bank account. But you could also support local businesses who will be glad to hold a book signing for you, if they know you.
Browsing through a bookstore educates you in many ways. You should be looking at covers. What trends are prevalent right now? What subjects seem well covered? What books seem to move? What are the booksellers recommending?
But let’s get closer to the actual practice of reading like a writer to see how the writer made the choices of how to say what they say, so that we will be better writers.
- Try reading like a writer to discover what the writer did to make you eager to see what comes next, eager to see how the plot unfolds. If you are reading nonfiction, notice how the writer tells the story. Is it chronologically or by ideas? The writer may introduce a concept with an event, then go back to show the events that led to that key event that changed a person’s life. You get the idea.
- Look at the way the writer organized the text. You might want to leaf through the book and see if you notice any patterns in the way chapters begin, or end.
- Notice the voice of the writer or narrator, the person who is telling the story. How does the author keep you engaged? Think about what the vocabulary used sounds like, what does the sentence length tell you? Can you picture the story-teller? How did the writer do that?
- This next one is related to the last one: word choice. Some word choices are made to reveal things about the characters, but look more closely at the words. Does the writer use strong verbs to build tension? And does the writer use ordinary people-talk? Or is it the voice of someone highly educated with lots of four or five syllable words?
- Does the writer use literary devices like similes (like or as comparisons) or metaphors. Merriam-Webster defines a metaphor this way, in case you recognize the word, but are not sure exactly what it means: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them. For instance: he was a giant of a man at five foot seven.
- Then there’s sentence fluency. That just means the flow or rhythm of the sentence that keeps us reading. Sometimes a writer will use several short sentences in a row to build tension. Or a long sentence to slow the action. Think about why the writer built his or her paragraphs as they did, and how did that impact you as the reader.
- Finally, how does the writer use the tools at his or her disposal to build the thing. Think commas, periods, text styles, use of the white space on a page, even the grammar, good and bad. Think through why the writer wrote it that way. Remember, in dialogue, almost anything goes. People do not speak with an English teacher on their shoulder.
OK, that’s a lot to think and to put on your to-do list. You might even print out part of this list and take it with you to the bookstore or library, to help you stay on task. Whatever it takes to keep you focused will be well worth it in the long run.
For more information on this, you might look at https://www.fldoe.org/core/fileparse.php/16294/urlt/ReadWriter.pdf
Or check out Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose