If you end a book & think nothing could be improved-you’re a reader.
If you end a book & think everything could be improved-you’re a writer.
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?
I saw that tweet as well and had mixed feelings. I read The Light Between Oceans last week and felt completely inadequate as a writer. It was so well plotted, multi-layered and entrenched in setting, as well as being a fantastic study in character motivation, that I felt at a loss for all of a good ten minutes. Thinking: Oh my God, it’s ML Stedman’s debut–what hope do I have? Ten minutes later I was tearing my current ms apart. (To improve it, of course).
You’re right that reading for pleasure is no longer the same. When I read Kate Morton’s The Lake House I found myself noticing all the structural and plot devices, and guessed the ending about midway.
Hi Kali. Gosh, I can relate to your experience of being completely intimidated by certain writers. I think I’ve got to the point where I can accept that I will probably never be able to write like some of my favourite authors – but that doesn’t mean I can’t write SOMETHING! It’s such a big market – and tastes are so varied. I haven’t yet read The Lake House – but keep hearing good things about it. It’s a little outside my comfort zone, but then again, that’s usually where you usually find the most pleasant of surprises. Cassie
I know I’ve been intimidated by reading other writers, but I’ve also been inspired. I fell in love with The Girl on the Swing by Richard Adams (an old book) and read it ten times marking all the clues with stickers to find out how he got the psychic elements in the mystery to seep into every page. I try to read for pleasure the first time (hard sometimes) and then go back and read it again to analyse. Thanks for the post, Cassie.
Hi Virginia. That’s a great idea – marking the clues with stickers. And I also agree with your idea of reading twice. If I’ve loved a book and can’t work out why, I finish and then turn straight back to page one. Cassie
I’ve always loved reading but probably not been conscious of my analysis until I started reviewing (blogging about) books. I suspect I’d often ponder on bits I liked or didn’t but the moment would disappear quickly.
Once I started doing writing courses I started to notice more and more about the writing (and TV dialogue etc).
And now I do blog about books I tend to think about the positives and negatives. I had some nice feedback from a friend once about how she found I was often spot-on with my assessments or comments about ‘what I’d change’. I’m sure that’s not always the case and I’m sure authors hate anyone second-guessing their ideas (particularly from a wannabe writer).
It’s a bit of a conundrum, when you’re writing a review, as to whether to include perceived ‘negatives’. After all, it’s all fairly subjective. But I think readers do like (and deserve) honesty. However, the more I write, the more I understand how hard it is, which is why I made a conscious decision only to talk about books I really liked on Book Birdy. Cassie
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