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Be a better reader to be a better writer

A simple writing truth is that to be a great writer, you must be a great reader. To fully absorb the author’s artistry, analyze the stories you read to understand how the writers crafted them. How did the author engage you as a reader? What was satisfying about the story? What craft elements stood out for you? What didn’t work?

As I read, I stay alert for sentences or paragraphs that cause a ping in my chest. Then I ask myself why I liked them and make a note.

Watch for these elements of writing craft as you read.

Metaphors. I assigned myself a project this week to make a note of metaphors that stand out in my reading. They don’t even have to be good. We can learn from something we read that doesn’t seem to work quite right. Note the metaphor and why you do or don’t like it. I’ll be doing a blog post in the future where I’ll share a list I’ve collected.

Description. When you read a distinctive description of a character or a setting, take notes about what makes it different so you can apply the ideas to your own work. Look for descriptions that are organic to the story. In the post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, he describes the world his father and son characters inhabit. “Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.”

Beautifully crafted sentences. Watch for sentences that move you because of their construction or content. Ernest Hemingway said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

The first sentence from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens draws readers into the book with the rhythmic use of the literary device anaphora, in which he repeats the phrase, “It was,” and “we had” and “we were.”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Original ideas. Have you ever read something that grabbed you because of its originality or meaning? Maybe a character has a quirky philosophy or a backstory that informs his actions or attitude and makes him seem especially real or unique.

Speaking of real, I love this classic sentence in The Velveteen Rabbitby Margery Williams: “Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

If you’re ever stuck on a scene or in need of inspiration, reread your reading insights. Track your reading analyses by keeping a notebook and copying passages or by highlighting them in your e-reader. I like to highlight sentences in my Kindle app and then make a note about why I liked them. It’s easy to go back through later and review the notes.

Besides the books I buy, I also check out books from the library and download them from Amazon. The Kindle app retains the highlights and notes I make in the borrowed e-books. And if I buy the book or check it out again later, they’ll be there to review.

I love to lose myself in stories. And I love the extra element of enjoyment in being able to appreciate the craft that goes into great storytelling. It inspires me to work even harder to craft my own true sentences.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to read well to write well, you might enjoy Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose.

For more ideas about this topic, read my post, Three highlights from my reading practice: See how they could make you a better writer.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. A very good post. I love the quote from “The Velveteen Rabbit”.

    May 22, 2015
    • So glad you like it! Feel free to post any of your favorite sentences in the comments.

      May 22, 2015
      • That’s a great idea! Until now I have remembered passages, but not realised why they were so effective.

        I love how Anne Rice captures mood, motion and place:

        “The life of ordinary life had suddenly gone out. Now he was a ruined thing, walking too fast under the lowering night sky of Chicago in October.” (Daniel, the interviewer from Interview with a Vampire as described in Queen of the Damned)

        May 23, 2015
      • Thanks for your comment! Great example and analysis.

        May 23, 2015
  2. Perfect advice, I will be saving this one. Reading is crucial for a writer, and saving favourite pieces is a helpful tip.

    May 22, 2015

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