Learn from What You Read

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 27 2010

In my blog post on Reading Day, one commenter wrote, “A good exercise for these writers would be to read critically for craft. I know we’re all supposed to do that anyway, and we notice examples of good or bad writing as we read, but I mean that they should read really closely for craft. Do a paragraph-by-paragraph or sentence-by-sentence analysis as they go along. Really dissect each little bit of the writing while paying attention to the overall plot, themes, etc., even if the book at that moment isn’t at a high point of tension. I think they’ll be surprised how much more time and brain power it takes and maybe gain a better appreciation of what you mean by reading (even if it’s not exactly the same).”

I wanted to highlight what this reader said because it is a great exercise and something I frequently recommend to my clients and other writers. If you find yourself struggling with your writing, maybe you’re having trouble developing your characters or the plot, go back and read some of your favorite books in the genre you’re writing in. The reason I suggest you reread your favorites is that you’re less likely to get caught up in the story and better able to read critically when it’s a book you already know.

As you’re reading do exactly as this commenter suggested. Dissect the book and figure out why things are working and how they’re developed. Reading critically like this can help you hone your craft. Listen, I do it. Reading critically like this helps me help my authors write better books.


20 responses to “Learn from What You Read”

  1. Avatar Paula Matter says:

    I've learned to do a query blurb, and a synopsis this way as well. Highlight the key characters and scenes in a favorite book. Pin down the goal, motivation and conflict. Somehow it's easier to do this with someone else's book. Eventually, I had a blurb and a synopsis for my own WIP. Great exercise.

  2. Avatar Ben says:

    I try to do that as much as I can. A funny after-effect of this practice is that I start writing similar sentences. It only lasts a few days, but it's kind of confusing in the middle of an intense writing spree. May I suggest critical reading is better suited to editing sessions?

  3. Another way to do this, take your favorite current author and a book that is so good it is just like a book you'd like to write. Get three colors of underliners. And choose three elements.

    Say, Action, Description, Dialogue.

    Underline each element with its own color and see how a master author controls pace, plot, emotion by expertly weaving elements through the story to, in fact, create the story.

    It gives you a feel for if nothing else how long you SHOULDN'T spen on description in a given chapter.

    An existing novel you just love is the best text out there for how to write.

  4. I've been doing that for years. I'm a rereader and keep my favorite read-them-over-again books in three large bookcases in my bedroom.

    When I read a book that completely sucks me in, I'm usually not critical. But, after the first time, I'll be reading it to try to figure out why it works, what sucks me in, what compels me. What works and even what didn't.

    Only down side is that it gets harder and harder to slog my way through anything that's not "great" (as my kind of book). If I'm NOT sucked in, I tear it to shreds as I read. Useful exercise, but not entertaining.

  5. I find this really helpful too, I have a couple of books I read that help me point out whats working or not especially since I am targeting a publishing house.

  6. Avatar Tracy says:

    There's no way I could re-read an entire book with that critical eye, because I still read mostly to entertain myself…and my critical eye and entertainment eye don't cross. ;o)

    BUT, I have critically read multiple openings to books that sucked me in from the beginning. Those writers obviously knew how to start a story, and I'd be smart to study and figure out how they did it.

  7. Avatar patlaff says:

    As a member of a novel writer's group, I'm forced to read other people's work critically. It's exhausting and we have a high turn-over because of it, but I believe it's essential to making my own writing even better.

  8. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    This is how I get through tough spots in my own work. I pull out an old favorite and am reminded, once again, why it works and what my WIP is missing. So often it's something very simple–like the romance! LOL…it's so easy to get caught up in the plot and the action, and totally forget the layers of emotion between the protagonists which, when you're writing a romance, is extremely important to the overall story.

  9. Avatar Florence says:

    Often, I feel as though someone is walking in my head. When I come here it happens quite a bit.

    This morning, actually five minutes ago I bought the kindle of someone I want to read for that same reason. Not her story, per se, but the setting and the way she set up her series.

    Great advice for anyone who wants to play with genre styles.

    Thanks once again 🙂

  10. Thanks for this post.

    I found an amazing book by Nancy Lamb (The Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories for Children – and not isn't just for children's writing). It teaches the art of critiquing while reading.

    I've never read a book the same since and it has literally rocked my writing world.

    I'm rewriting my novel and it was immediately obvious in my writing. I'm now feeling like a real author.

  11. Avatar ryan field says:

    I do it all the time. There was a famous writer's colony in the l950's…can't think of the name right now…that produced a few bestselling authors. And each morning the writers read from their favorite books before they started working on their own books.

  12. Avatar Kathy says:

    I use this technique often. The more I read, the more I start noticing the way authors do things. How they describe, how they characterize, how they set things up. It's fascinating to me to discover these things in the books I read.

  13. I make notes in the margins of books that I read, in an attempt to learn from them. But there are limits. Recently I decided to try a mainstream book to see how it became so popular. I chose one of James Patterson's more successful novels.

    It's just horrible. It's written at about a fifth grade level, with rapid POV shifts and chapters that are only one or two pages long. Characterization is blatant and stereotypical, and the pacing makes no sense at all.

    The only thing this book has to teach me is "Popular books are Dumb", and I don't think that's a useful lesson.

  14. @Ben: I've found myself doing the same thing. Your idea of saving this especially for editing sessions is a good one, and it's probably easier to compare and evaluate your own work once you have a draft of the story.

    @Tracy: You wouldn't have to do it over a whole novel. It can be really helpful to just read passages from a previous favorite, to see what works or doesn't work. (This was my comment, btw, and I originally made it in the hopes that by doing this for just a short portion of a book, we could understand how the reading agents do for work is different from the reading we all do for fun. It's much more exhausting, even if it can be enjoyable.)

    And I'm honored you reposted this, Jessica!

  15. Excellent advice. Much can be learned from novels we *think* we know inside and out.

  16. I also find that reading aloud can be an excellent way to get a new take on certain passages. I think it's safe to say that most of us read more quickly than we speak, so the simple act of reading the words aloud forces us to slow down. What sentences roll off the tongue? What sticks in the throat? What do we stumble over, and what makes us long to give up the reading aloud and race ahead in the story?

    We notice rhythm, word choice, the poetry of good prose. Readers might be surprised just how much beauty there is in good writing beyond just enjoyment of the story.

    Not only is this a good way to help train the critical reader for published books, it's also a great tool for writers' own manuscripts. You get a completely different view of your own writing, and you can learn a lot from it.

  17. Avatar Jaycee Adams says:

    If you want your eyes to bleed, read the new V book that came out, as in the one that continues after the original books. It seems to pay no attention to the series (the original series) but I don't remember that much. It serves as a great example of what NOT to do with a book… except, if you read it, it may damage your ability to write well.

  18. Avatar Levonne says:

    This must be why I'm not published yet. I don't reread many books. I find it hard to keep up with all the new ones that there are to read.

  19. Avatar Anita Saxena says:

    I don't get to read as much as I'd like, but sure to my long commute to work I listen to alot of audio books. Hearing so many books has helped my writing tremendously.

  20. Avatar Anonymous says:

    One problem you get is (unintentionally) mimicking that writer's style, esp while you're writing the ms. One author I liked used so much description, adverbs, adjectives and similies that I started sprinkling my ms. with all sorts of description–thus slowing the plot and cluttering the ms. Now I have to go back and take it all out…so make sure you study the best writers, not just best-selling authors.