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Reading like a Writer

January 20, 2011

by Eileen Andrews

Reading other people’s writing is essential to being a successful author. Don’t take my word for it. Stephen King’s number one bit of advice to budding authors? Read. (Check out this link to a quick youtube video of his advice)

Sure, you can ignore this advice and blindly go about writing your novel. Perhaps you that in order to produce original work you must avoid examining what other people write.

In one way this is correct. Writing in a vacuum will produce work that is completely original. The question is will it be any good? Will you avoid common pitfalls? Will it amble along with no regard to the reader?

I find it odd some people are nervous to examine the works of other writers for fear of being influenced by them. Or is it because they feel there’s nothing left for them to learn? As my mother used to say, “They think they shit vanilla ice cream!”

Believing you have nothing left to learn is a bad sign. In this world there’s always something or someone out there who can teach you something.

Don’t let your ego get in the way of success. Remain teachable. Remain open to the words and ideas pushed around by other authors.

Learning about writing is necessary for us all. You can bury yourself in how-to books or do it the fun way. By excessive study and reading of books.

Musical artist Tricky worked with Massive Attack for years before he took off on his own. He spent an exorbitant amount of time deconstructing what he listened to, learning how to put music together. As a result he’s become a commercial and artistic success.

Car mechanics are trained by taking cars apart and putting them back together. To know how a thing works, one must be able to see how the parts join. Then comes freedom to play with construction.

Sting will deconstruct his own music, taking it apart only to put it back together again in a different way, creating something new.

Have I convinced you yet? Perhaps we should examine what you have to benefit.

What does reading and analyzing?

1. Feeding the fire. Some people can’t read while they’re in the middle of a project. I find it fuels my muse. It’s as if my gas tank is empty. I think of my brain as a recycling machine…I feed it the words of other people and it tears them all apart, creating fodder for my own words.

2. Settling into your voice. Reading has helped me maneuver into my own voice. It’s as if living in the voice of another author guides me in the right direction.

3. Reassurance and knowing what doesn’t work. Have you ever read a book, tossed it against the wall and thought, “I can do so much better than that!” Can you? Then do it! Write the better story and develop the better character! Sometimes the only thing keeping me going is reading the sludge out there and knowing if that can get published, then so can I! But pay attention before you do. What was it about the book you hated so much and be careful that you don’t do it. Or in the end it’ll be six months of your life someone is tossing against the wall.

4. Grammar, syntax and spelling, oh my! There’s no way to get around the fact that writing is a learned skill. Use too many commas and you’ll pause the reader into shutting your book. Overuse a word and their head may spin. Expose yourself to as much language as you can, it’ll soak in and soon good use of it will be an instinct.

Now that I’ve harangued you into analyzing the next book you read, you probably want me to tell you how. That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer…yet!

Start with your favorite book. The one you’ve read ten times and pick up when you feel blue. Your challenge is to figure out what you love about it. What makes this book the one you immediately recommend when people ask your favorite book.

This is the book you want to use as the basis of your first analysis. If it’s the epitome of great writing then it will be a good model of what you’d like to write. Now I didn’t say it’ll be a good model to copy, but a good model to mimic. Especially if you’re starting out.

By taking apart and analyzing this book you’ll have a good basis for how to put your own work together. It will give you a guide, preventing you from wandering around your word processor blindly typing what sounds good.

Tear that book apart, chapter by chapter, page by page. Write a synopsis of it; what elements worked, what didn’t work. Find your own way of doing it. Make order out of the chaos and soon you will see your own path.

Eileen Andrews began her writing career crafting homemade newspapers for the neighborhood and childrens books. This was of course after she wrote a letter to the Queen of England inquiring as to whether or not she washed her own sheets.

Having spent time as a journalist, social scientist, and retail manager, Eileen is eager to create her own worlds and promises to make them much more fun than reality!

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6 Comments
  1. January 20, 2011 5:21 am

    Thanks for your insights Eileen, great to have your voice here at Write Anything.

  2. January 20, 2011 7:50 am

    Great writers would agree with you. Stephen King said, “Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” And here is William Faulkner: “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window. ” These writers are saying the same thing as did Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth century Japanese poet: “Learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.”

  3. January 21, 2011 4:39 am

    Great advice and some handy little checklists for the people who still need convincing. Not reading while I’m writing would feel like a form of starvation – and no good ever came of that.

  4. Reagan permalink
    January 21, 2011 9:04 pm

    I am one of those people who doesn’t read other people’s work because I would never want my hard work to be mistaken for imitation of someone else’ s. I would like to be recognized for originality and a “set apartness” from other writers. I am all about learning new things everyday..I am an advocate of it, but I disagree with the great Stephen king quote that if you don’t have time to read you don’t have time to write..I kind of think its absurd to even say something like that. Unless I am misunderstanding the broad aspect of this statement. I read advice articles and news reels and current events but to read someone’s novel works while I am writing in my opinion takes time away from me writing myself.

  5. January 21, 2011 9:07 pm

    Great advice – spot on.

  6. February 1, 2011 4:36 pm

    Thanks for your interest everyone!
    @Reagan How can you know where you fit in the great scheme of the book market without reading what’s out there?

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