How to Read Like a Writer
by Dan Parsons
Do you read like a writer? Not just understand a book but deconstruct it with the intention of creating original work based on what you’ve learned?
Readers who only turn to books for enjoyment don’t read that way. On the whole, their process is passive, reading in the same way they watch trashy TV. They don’t wonder about how the creator framed and lit the story in their imagination. They don’t think about dialogue. Nor do they dissect the plausibility of the plot and the logistics of character movements. They don’t peer into the cogs of the story and try to understand its mechanics. What made them laugh. Why they cried. How a book manipulated their emotions. They just absorb, enjoy and move onto the next book.
Reading in this active way, though, is vital if you want to improve your craft.
You probably already do it to some extent. If you’ve read some romance, you will understand the reader’s desire for a happily ever after. Likewise, flipping through children’s picture books will have told you that many of the bestsellers favour a poetic style you don’t often find in novels. You will have absorbed these details organically and would replicate them on instinct if challenged to produce something similar.
Having said that, natural immersion will only get you so far. If you’re a newbie and want to improve your writer’s eye, or you’re launching a new pen name and need to master an unfamiliar genre, this blog post will equip you with a foolproof formula for identifying the features of great writing. Moreover, it will teach you how to adopt the nuances of genre and style, helping you to fast-track your own ability.
Genre is a good place to start. All authors – regardless of their genre – have access to the same dictionary. However, if you look closely, you will notice that writers in the same genre tend to operate loosely within the confines of a shared vocabulary. For example, a University of Texas postdoctoral study of 703 leading romance novels found that, among a few graphic names for both male and female anatomy, some of the most common words used include:
You will notice a focus on body parts and emotions over, say, words that describe setting or violent actions. Likewise, a similar study of 30 bestselling fantasy novels discovered that, among mythical creature names, readers encounter words like:
These discoveries make it clear that readers loyal to certain genres expect the fiction they read to be written with a particular palette of words – one that produces an experience they have come to expect.
Reading a genre’s bestselling titles and incorporating their general vocabulary into your own work can offer you a much better chance of seeing your work resonate with the story’s target audience. That’s not to say original ideas and turns of phrase won’t help you stand out, but you need to master the established style before you try to improve on it.
Structure is another factor you need to consider when reading. This goes for fiction and non-fiction. For example, how long are the chapters in some of your most treasured books? How many lines long is an average paragraph? Do the best self-help books end each chapter with a summary? When does the villain first appear in the novel and when does the tension reach its peak? When does the heroine kiss the billionaire?
Each genre will express a spectrum of wordcounts and structures. As a result, a good way to proceed is to look for patterns: what structures tend to get the most commercial success in each genre and what structure do you most enjoy? By gauging what works well, you will have a better idea of how to structure you own work when outlining.
Again, sentence structure varies between books. Those aimed at children and teenagers often demonstrate a short, staccato style that’s easy to read. Each sentence will only be made up of a few clauses, or often just one. In contrast, novels aimed at adults typically contain longer, more complex sentences. Look into any Victorian novel, from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle to Emily Brontë, and you will discover a pattern of even more meandering sentences with multiple subclauses. In those cases, single sentences occasionally take up nearly half a page.
Syntax influences the reading experience so, if you want to package the feeling of a particular era or genre, you should consider how its most-loved authors structured their sentences. There will always be a need for variation – it holds the readers’ attention – but mastering this skill can enable you to create nostalgia, relaxation or excitement on cue.
METAPHORS AND SIMILES
Reading like a writer isn’t just about working out how your favourite books enchanted you. It’s also about identifying what went wrong with those you never finished reading.
As writers, we love using flowery language, much of which is cut out by editors to create a lighter reading experience. While a sharp, well-placed metaphor or simile can elevate your prose, too many will slow down your plot and make reading a slog. This comes up all the time in creative writing classes. The well-thumbed advice to “kill your darlings” is prevalent for precisely that reason – because trying to be clever too often is self-indulgent. However, even if writers manage to prune their art to a readable level, they can still sometimes miss the mark.
The evidence is easy to spot in bad books, which can be just as enlightening for active readers as good books. Some phrases – though beautiful – miss the mark because they don’t match the words that surround them. For example, imagine a fantasy battle set in the Middle Ages. Now imagine a dragon flying overhead described as a slick “fighter-jet” of a monster. While that might be an interesting description, the comparison doesn’t match the story’s time period or the characters’ frames of reference.
Unless the heroes have been pulled through a portal from the modern world, the metaphor falls short because it yanks the reader out of the story by forcing their attention to an anachronism in the fictional world. Spotting these sore-thumb metaphors and similes is an easy way to ensure you don’t commit the same inappropriate style choices.
Analysing dialogue can also be helpful because great speech is often what separates professionals from amateur authors. And it isn’t always about the zing and wit of the characters, either. It’s not what they say, it’s how they say it – the dialogue tags and reactions that are described.
Writers can identify shortcomings in their own approach to dialogue by seeing how others do it. It can help us see what’s included and – more commonly – what’s omitted, particularly for new writers who have a tendency to overwrite in this area.
For example, after a character’s death, an inexperienced writer might end a chapter with his sister’s response as follows:
His sister sobbed, her mind distant.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” she cried quietly, her face reddening like a sunset with each passing second.
Whereas a more experienced writer might be confident enough to take a more minimalist approach:
His sister sobbed, her mind distant. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
As you can see, the dialogue in this second example doesn’t have a fancy frame but omitting details more effectively hammers home the girl’s emotional destruction.
Reading passively can highlight what has been added that makes an author’s writing effective. It isn’t until you read actively, however, that you notice what isn’t there and how the silence actually adds to the quality of the work.
This last tip transcends genre because it applies to great writing in general – the flashes of original genius that give you gooseflesh when you read an amazing book. You can’t recreate exactly the same brand of awe, of course. The nature of originality means your version will be less impactful because you are the second person to write it. Nor can you note down their most beautiful metaphors or their funniest dialogue and pass it off as your own. That’s plagiarism.
That said, you can develop your own ability to wow readers by absorbing as much great content as possible over a long period of time and making a mental note of the interesting bits. This is not a quick process. It’s glacial, so slow you won’t even notice the changes. However, in time, you will read your old work and notice how much better you have become – and agonize over all the little tricks you could have employed to make old projects so much better. Without even noticing it, your literary instincts will sharpen. You just have to make a consistent effort to develop a reflex of reading like a writer.
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