This was a tweet that came through on my feed last week and sparked an interesting conversation between several writers (including me), who largely disagreed.
Thank goodness! There’s a certain tone of superiority in the comment that really rankles with me, and therefore, I will refrain from naming the person who wrote it. However, I understand the sentiment behind the tweet – that is, there is a difference between reading purely for enjoyment, and reading as a process of learning to write.
If you want to be a writer, you need to read.
I have read this piece of advice countless times and am always secretly pleased, for if there is one thing I love doing, it’s reading.
But I know it’s not enough. It’s not enough to let the words wash over you without thought.
So – when writers say that aspiring writers need to read, this piece of advice really needs a qualifying clause. You need to read – yes. But you need to read in a critical way. Now, I don’t mean that you should be looking for grammatical errors or plot holes. I mean, read in an analytical way. Be a writerly reader.
What does this mean?
To me, it means asking lots of questions. It means taking a step back from the story and reflecting on the techniques being used.
Here are some of the things I think about when I’m trying to read critically….
– In what tense is the book written? Past? Present? What impact does that choice have? eg if it’s present tense, does it add to the immediacy but reduce the potential for reflection?
– From what point of view is the story told? Is it told in the first person, second or the third person? If it’s told from multiple points of view, how does the author manage the transitions? Does the POV ever change mid-scene? Is there also evidence of a narratorial presence, that is, a narrator external to the characters? How much access does the author provide to their characters? Is the reader ‘inside the characters’ heads’ or more external to them? How does this impact the story and our understanding of chracters’ motivations
– Are there flash-backs and flash-forwards? What purpose do they serve? How does the author handle the transitions?
– What is the balance of scene, summary and reflection – or, in other words, how much of what is written consists of ‘the action’ (dialogue etc)? How much of it summarises conversations/thoughts/occurrences? How much is devoted to purely descriptive writing?
– How is dialogue handled? Is it reported as direct speech? With quotation marks? Or is it reported indirectly? How do these varying techniques affect ‘the flow’ of the writing?
– What makes the author’s voice distinctive? Is there a particular rhythm or cadence you can identify? Do they use fragmented or complex sentences? Is the syntax (order of words in a sentence) unusual?
– How does the author use imagery? Are there recurring themes or motifs? Do the metaphors and similes feel fresh and original? What makes them this way?
My university lecturer, author Jane Messer, once told me that a beloved book is a gift for the aspiring writing to treasure – a gift that you should never be afraid to scrutinise deeply. Not for the purposes of replication – no one is suggesting plagiarism – but for the purposes of understanding why you love it, and how you might incorporate some of those techniques into your own writing.
The list above is not exhaustive but it’s a start. I’d love to know what questions you pose to yourself when you’re reading as a writer?