writing, Writing advice

Reading for Writers

One day, several years ago, when I was working as a cook in a restaurant, I and my fellow cook—who happened to be a musician—were discussing the song playing on the restaurant’s sound system. You know: what we liked, what we didn’t and why. Suddenly, one of the servers, who overheard us asked: “Why do you guys have to analyze everything?”

We looked at each other. We were analyzing? It was so automatic, we no longer even thought about it.

I do it to a certain extant when I listen to music: asking myself why I like or dislike the piece, what works, what doesn’t, who the songwriter may have emulated as she wrote. I do the same thing, but even more so when I’m reading.

And it’s automatic. It should be for every writer.

Every time we read, whether it’s a new novel, a classic work of literature, or the back of a box of Cheerios, we should be analyzing every word, every decision the writer made. We should be constantly asking ourselves questions: do we like it? Not like it? Either way, why? If we don’t like it, how might we do it differently?

There are many other questions we must ask ourselves as we read. Why did the author choose to begin the work where he or she did? Was it in the middle of the action, or did it build up to the first conflict? Was it a good decision? Why end it where they did? Did the plot flow seamlessly from event to event, or seem contrived in places? Were the characters all realistically portrayed, or two dimensional cut-outs? Did the author make wide use of simile and metaphor, or were the descriptions bare bones, utilitarian? How did that effect the work as a whole? Were the locations chosen for the stories appropriate? How did they add or detract from the story? Could the story have been just as effective somewhere else? Was the pace and rhythm appropriate for the events in the story? Was the vocabulary and diction appropriate for the genre and audience? How does the author handle dialogue? Exposition? How does she fill in necessary backstory?

There are thousands of questions we need to ask as we read. Interestingly, often they are largely the same questions we need to answer when we are writing our own work, such as where to begin telling the story. Other than actually writing, conscious reading is the absolutely best way to learn the craft of writing. We see how others have handled a particular problem and can borrow (or revise) their technique, depending on how well we think it works.

But, I can hear someone objecting already, what about reading for pleasure? What if I just want to read something for the fun of it? What if I just want to escape?

Go for it. More power to you. Even reading for pure, escapist pleasure has its benefits. We learn just from exposure, but the learning curve there is much more shallow. If you want to get better as fast as possible you need to read consciously.

And again, those of us who have been working on our writing skills for a while, like myself, can no longer help it. Like when the server asked my friend and I that question all those years ago: “Why do you have to analyze everything?” my answer is that it is automatic. I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

I analyze everything I read. I try to notice everything. I read consciously.

You can too.

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