Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451, said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” This is especially the case if you are – or want to be – a writer.
Writers, like everyone else, need to read for pleasure and information, but they also need to train themselves to “notice” in a way that non-writers do not. In order to write well, writers need to learn to read well. They need to “notice” features of the books they read so that they can add them to their own repertoire of writing techniques.
Are You A Writer? Show Me How You Read
I’m not talking here about how many books you read… what matters is how you read. It is this that reveals whether or not you are a writer. As a writer you will be reading for much more than plot. You will be reading for technique and style, and for how the author makes you laugh or cry. You will be taking a book apart and working out how the author uses language to achieve the effects that trigger your emotions.
Reading is not a race or a competition. When you read as a writer it should be the equivalent of sitting down to a lavish meal in a restaurant in Provence or Tuscany. Would you really gobble down that feast and then add it to your list of meals eaten? If that’s the case, let us pity the poor chef.
On the contrary, you would probably savour the ingredients of those dishes and try to work out what they were. Consider how you would feel if, after many years of hard work, redrafting and editing your own book, someone whipped through it in a couple of hours and then notched it up as just another novel they’d read?
Why Real Writers Read
As a writer you need to read in order to find out what’s being published and what themes are trending. Read Luigi Bonomi’s Writing Tips article to understand how important this is. If you are not reading anything, your ideas about writing will, without a doubt, be grossly out-of-date. Can you really write for today’s audience if you don’t keep up with what people are buying and reading?
You definitely need to read in order to learn your craft. Don’t show up at a writers’ workshop asking to be taught how to write and, at the same time, confessing that you never read. Writing is a proactive occupation, and books are your best teachers. They will show you how to begin a novel, how to structure it, and how to end it. They will teach you how words can create magic.
How Reading Can Turn You Into A Better Writer
Read a book first for pleasure and to find out what happens. If this is a book that really appeals to you, then read it again, but this time with a pen and notebook by your side. There is no book from which you cannot glean some useful idea or solution for your own work-in-progress.
Have you decided, for example, how your own book will be structured? As in the novels of Jeffrey Deaver, or Chris Carter, chapters may be short and punchy, with “cliff-hanger” endings designed to keep us guessing what happens next. If you’re writing non-fiction, you may want to divide your book up thematically as in Lynn Barber’s classic An Education, or chronologically as in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence.
Is your dialogue too laboured and “on the nose”? In that case, look at how spare it is in novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Or, see how it is purposely fragmented or out-of-synch in books like Don Delillo’s Underworld. Learn from these writers how to invite your readers to grasp your sub-text, the message between the lines.
Are you planning on having multiple narrators? Take a look at William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. Are you going to launch straight into your story, or do you want to try a framing device, as in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw? Do you need find a way to get inside your protagonist’s head? See how Eimear McBride does this in her book, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. And, if physical descriptions are a problem for you, go back to look at that last Stephen King novel that you read way too fast.
As King himself says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Written by Janet Olearski
Janet Olearski is an author and writing coach, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Don’t lend her any books because she will write notes all over them. Read more at: http://www.janetolearski.com