How to Use Reading to Become A Better Writer
I recently read an article that suggested: “If you want to be a great writer, stop reading.” This idea came to the author because he was chagrined to find himself subconsciously writing in a style of someone he admires. I think we all do that when we start out. For me, his primary premise revolved around this quote.
But if you want to be original — if you want to be what I’ll call a “great” writer, one who rarely gets influenced and stays true to themselves, reading less might help.
Each person needs to find their own way to originality. However, I believe this young writer is mixing up some ideas, depending on how he approaches his writing. When I started writing fiction — having come from a nonfiction background and academic writing — I focused on all kinds of craft things like description and character development, themes and pacing. I mistakenly thought that if I could create sentences and paragraphs like my favorite authors, then that would make me a great writer.
The first thing I learned was that no matter how exacting I could be in creating those sentences and paragraphs, if it wasn’t my voice — my style of writing — then it would never feel right. I also learned that if I wasn’t writing about situations — challenges and people — that meant something to me, that I had a much harder time writing the story. In fact, I often couldn’t finish it.
The other thing I missed was story. What most readers love about a writer is the way that writer pulls a story together. Not just the plot, but the themes and characters and descriptions that all work together as a seamless whole. That is what makes a reader keep coming back to buy the next book or put that writer on the always-buy list.
Studying sentence structure and paragraph and pacing is the smaller part of what makes a beloved author great. Instead, I believe that studying story is a better endeavor and expenditure of time. Furthermore, the best way to do that is to read widely.
The best way to learn is to tear up good books that are in the genre you want to write and to understand why they work. Also, don’t focus on just one favorite author. Choose authors you hate but are very popular, as well as authors you love.
Reading in the Genre You Write
The problem with stopping reading, even in your own genre, is that you stop learning, admiring, or hating other people’s way of tackling things. There is certainly something to be said for just writing and writing and writing. You do learn from that. However, I don’t think you learn as fast because you can keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
I remember when a new author came to me, about six years ago, with a completed trilogy of books he wanted to market as historical romance. He’d shopped the first one of the trilogy with a variety of agents and got no bites. He wanted me to give him an endorsement. After reading even the first chapters of the first book, I knew he didn’t have a chance. I skimmed the rest of the book, looking for where something substantial began. It never did.
His writing was good on a sentence-by-sentence level — perfect grammar, beautiful descriptions, no typos. But his story was blah. Nothing of consequences ever happened. Characters were never put in jeopardy — emotional or physical — and for 300+ pages everything fell into place for them. It was similar to reading someone’s travel diary of a magical vacation with great destinations, pictures, and perfect relationships. Not a single problem on the entire trip.
He told me: “I purposely wanted to write a quiet story.”
I said: “Yes, it’s quiet, too quiet. Readers want to see problems because that’s real life. They want to root for the characters to overcome those hurdles and to prove they’ve earned their destiny. The readers’ journey is to be buoyed by seeing people like them or someone they know succeed against all odds. A character who is saintly, falling in love with another character who is a perfect do-gooder sounds lovely but gives nowhere for the reader to journey with the characters.”
He said: “But I don’t want to read about people with problems. I want to read about people where everything comes easy because they are good. I’m celebrating people being good.”
I said: “But you don’t know how good they really are if they are never challenged or tempted to be bad. For example, if the saintly woman is poor an has to make the choice to steal bread for her family to survive, that is a challenge. How she resolves that is interesting for the reader.”
He had written over 300,000 words continuing to make the same mistake, believing that the beauty of the words was enough. Though he had read books in his genre, he missed the most important parts — story expectations — instead of focusing on the beauty of the language and the sentence-by-sentence perfection.
It is important to read in the genre you write for many reasons. First and foremost is to know what is popular and why — even if it isn’t exactly what you intend to write.
How to Tear Apart and Analyze a Novel for Story
When I tear apart a novel (not literally but analyze its pieces), I first do a plot outline so I can see exactly how things progressed, noting how pacing changes and why. Then I do a character outline, so I can see where each character was in their life at the beginning and what changes occurred along the way to get them to who they were in the end. I write down what happened that caused the change and what the change was. Most characters move during the story in bits and pieces and often fall back to old comfortable habits before finally giving in to the change. Finally, I look at the themes of the novel and mark where descriptions of people, places, and things matched those themes.
In other words, I’m looking at how a story is put together to become a whole. I am not focusing on only one aspect of the writing or the story. I do this even for books I hate. In fact, popular books that I hate always have important parts of story or originality that made them popular.
One of the genres I write in is contemporary romance. The books that are most popular are books that tend to have young protagonists (usually in their mid to late 20’s) with strong women and men that are either heroic (e.g., fireman, policeman, military) or rich (doctors, lawyers, architects, or inherited wealth). They tend to be very modern characters with all the trappings of modern living, and not too many emotional problems — other than wanting to find love. The books center on that journey of their relationship ups and downs, focusing on finding the one person to spend the rest of their life with.
I do write romance but I don’t write those popular, very focused only on the relationship books. However, reading them and tearing them apart informs me about the dynamics that drive readers to come back again and again. Some of those dynamics are single location (e.g., small town, a ranch) so that the majority of the story is confined to that one known environment. This is why trapped-in-a-snowstorm books work so well.
Readers love younger protagonists because they are still fresh and optimistic and keep striving for love, though I’ve seen that recently many popular romances reach up into the mid 30’s in age. In other words, the most rabid readers don’t want super messy problems because they want to feel that optimism again that they perhaps had in their youth.
The “fish out of water” theme works well because it is easy to see how that forces a person to change. For example, a city girl going to the country is without anything familiar to her and she has to cope. Think Hallmark channel and how often the city woman or man leaves stressful work environment to return to the country where the first few days she thinks she could never live there and they are all country-bumpkins, but then discovers that simple living has deep meaningful aspects that he/she secretly craved. This plays into most people’s belief that country living is simpler, more basic, and therefore easier to cast off all the things that made stress in your life.
Finally, the one most important rule of the contemporary romance genre is that the couple must fall in love and make a lifetime commitment to each other by the end of the book. Most often this is getting married, but it can be getting engaged or agreeing that they are living together in a committed relationship. The reader needs that satisfaction after taking the journey with those characters.
Though I don’t write exactly that down-the-middle-o-the-genre book, I can still incorporate many of the things readers love in my books. Though my heroines tend to be in a wider range of ages, from 17 to 50, they all still have the same needs for love and community. Though my characters tend to have big, messy problems — from mental health to trauma — they still go on the journey of overcoming them, some of it on their own and some of it with a partner in their life. I do pair my characters with someone who has what they need to challenge them and to become a better, more fulfilled person in the end. I use both country and city backgrounds because, for me, fish-out-of-water can be as much about the emotional journey as about the location. In the end, my couples do get together and make a lifetime commitment, so it satisfies the romance readers’ expectations.
Even though my romance books aren’t written down the middle of the genre’s characters and plots, they still provide readers with many of the same experiences. That is what’s important in genre writing. The originality comes with what is important for me to include and how those characters take that journey.
Reading in Other Genres Provides Unique Perspectives and Mashup Opportunities
There is a problem with only reading in your own genre. That is getting caught up in the same story again and again. That story may pay well If you do it well, but some people are looking to be different and there are a large percentage of readers who appreciate different. One way to do that is to read in other genres.
Because I’ve already torn apart the genres I write in, when I’m actually writing a novel I don’t read in that genre for those months I’m working on that book. For example, when I’m in the midst of writing a fantasy novel, I don’t read any fantasy at all because I don’t want to be influenced by the worlds, the magic, or the characterization the author employed. Fantasy can be very self-referential. Consequently, I create my world and its rules for magic or paranormal powers before even beginning the series. Then I need to concentrate on employing that and I don’t want to be influenced by something I’m reading when the writing gets difficult.
When I’m the middle of a romance novel I’ll read science fiction or thrillers. When I’m writing science-fiction I’ll read a lot of nonfiction cosmology, physics, and science technology to inform the background information. Actually, reading outside of what I’m writing has created some interesting cross-genre options I would have never considered before.
In a new series I started this year, I’m writing a primarily science-fiction based space opera with a romantic subplot. One of the characters has what would appear to be paranormal powers, but is actually based in a scientific explanation for how his brain works that way. It is marketed as Science Fiction, Science Fiction Romance, and Metaphysical Science Fiction. Those are three different audiences but with some cross-over readers — primarily women.
In another book, a contemporary romance, I incorporated a thriller piece to lead up to the climax and to resolve an important part of both my protagonist’s character development. I would have never known how to incorporate that effectively had I not read any thrillers and understood both the psychology and the pacing. Reading thrillers has also informed my romantic suspense writing.
All fiction genres share many of the same parts of story. Reading in different genres gives you a new perspective of so many parts of story, from character development to pacing to themes and description. Mashups are often books that become popular not in the beginning because they aren’t straight down the genre middle but by word of mouth. They are a way to provide originality while still knowing and delivering on what the reader wants in story.
Reading Widely on Blogs Helps Select Good Articles to Publish
I read widely on a variety of blogs, e-zines about the publishing business, and at least three different newspapers with three different takes on the world and what is going on. I also enjoy big aggregator blogs like Medium. I do this because I have interests in a lot of different topics from physics to philosophy and computer technology to better relationships. Reading widely gives me a much larger perspective on the world and how people with different skills approach it. I also read in the same topics I write because I look for something that hasn’t been covered; or at least hasn’t been covered from my perspective or the details important to me.
For example, I recently wrote an article on search engine optimization (SEO) for authors. I know that there is a lot on SEO for businesses, but rarely things focusing on the unique needs of authors. My usual approach to any Medium article is to write the first draft and then search Medium to see if there are other articles. In this case, I found four. Two written in 2016, one in 2017, and one in 2018. None of them covered the things I covered in my first draft. They all were big overviews of SEO basics without specific examples for writers. So, I felt good about publishing it.
Other times, when I have an idea and know it is probably a popular topic, I’ll do a search for the idea theme and see how many articles already exist. If it’s too many, I won’t spend the time writing it. I currently have six or seven first draft articles that I haven’t published because I haven’t identified my unique spin on it yet. I want to add to the discussion, not duplicate it.
Nonfiction writing requires the widest reading approach because nonfiction reflects the human condition in all of its complexity. You can’t write about computer technology without taking into account the user interface — how humans use applications. Many scientific studies, from medicine to cosmology, actually focus on the human need to understand our environment and improve it. Therefore, reading and understanding psychology is important to thread that through an article.
In the end, you have to trust yourself and your process. If your process is to not read during certain times and then binge read in others that’s okay, as long as you don’t give up reading altogether. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the more you read the better and more interesting writer you will become. I believe that is where originality happens and that is where you will finally find your voice.