Writing Wednesday — Learning by Reading

leslie reading
The author as a bookish child

Writers must be readers first.

We come to the page first as readers. If you had older siblings, like I did, you probably ached to read as a small child—to decipher those black marks on the white page, or to know what your parents were talking about when they discussed the day’s mail or something one had seen in the newspaper. Then you learned, and a world opened up, and eventually, you knew you had to be part of it.

I’m a big fan of books on writing, on classes and workshops and critique groups. But the best tool you have in improving your craft is to read like a writer. I highly recommend Francine Prose’s 2006 book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them.

My tip: Write your own book reviews. Keep track of what you read and what you thought. I started doing this ages ago when I first started writing, and it’s been hugely important. Use a small spiral notebook, no bigger than 5X9. In the front, reserve two pages for that year’s chronological list. List each title, author, and year of publication. I don’t number my list, but do note every 5th book in the margin, along with the month. I use highlighters to distinguish mysteries and general fiction; you might highlight other genres. If you’re trying to read more books by authors or about main characters vastly different from you, use another color for diversity.

Then write a review of every book. I often make notes as I read on something that delights or annoys me. When I finish the book, I note the date, then write a page or two or three. Summarizing the plot is a good exercise, revealing whether it held together, was memorable, or gaped with holes you didn’t notice as you read. (Why not? Too spell-bound by the language or the main character? Too caught up in the mystery, the what-ifs and whys? Note that, too.) Did the setting stand out? The main character and her motivations? The language? The structure? What other elements worked or didn’t?

Be positive as well as negative. Identify at least one thing you want to emulate—the author’s use of POV or how she weaves physical descriptions in through action. Note the failures, the imagery the author clearly thought important that escaped you, the sentences you never understood despite re-reading them two or three times, the failure to evoke a visceral or emotional response. Why did the story work or not work for you? If you’ve read other books by this author, how does this one compare?

At year end, you might want to see how many mysteries you’ve read, whether any are eligible for awards you’re eligible to vote for, or just look back fondly.

I’ll warn you that when you first start reading as a writer, reading isn’t as much fun as when you were six and enraptured by everything on the page. That will pass; you’ll learn to critique and enjoy.

And you’ll be a better writer for it, I promise.

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