Reading for writing craft

Reading is the bedrock of writing. If you’re looking to improve your writing craft, one of the best ways to do so—outside of actually writing—is to read. Read widely, read deeply, steep yourself in words.

But that’s not the whole story.

Writing is like magic, in more ways than one. If you want to be a stage magician, you can’t just watch loads of polished performances and expect to be able to emulate them. You have to look behind the curtain to see how the tricks are done. Then you have to practice. A lot. Until that sleight of hand becomes invisible to the audience and the magic happens.

In the same way, reading doesn’t automatically equip you with the skills that you need to write effectively and make the magic happen. But if you can peek behind the curtain with an analytical eye, you’ll transform reading from a writing fuel into a writing tool. You’ll be able to use it to guide your writing practice and hone your craft.

1. What to read

All reading is good reading. All books have something to teach you about writing, whether they lead by example or show you how not to do things.

The broader your reading horizons, the more you will learn about writing craft. The mainstream is narrow: if you’re only reading bestsellers, well-known authors, or books put out by the Big Four publishing companies, you’re missing out on a whole bunch of exciting writing and vast swathes of different human experiences and perspectives.

One of the most important things you can do is identify the unconscious biases and gaps in your reading and work to counter them, on an ongoing basis.

Try out these other ways to push your reading boundaries, too:

  • Take part in a reading challenge. These can be a fun way to find books you might not have otherwise come across. For example: the r/fantasy bingo challenge (link opens in a new tab).
  • Ask a bookish person for a recommendation and give their choice a go. Bonus points if it’s in a genre you don’t normally read.
  • Invite some chaos into your TBR: go to the library or a bookshop and pick a book at random. Literally close your eyes and grab one off the shelf! Or use a random number generator to select one (e.g. if your library uses the Dewey decimal system or you’re browsing digitally).
  • If you’re aware of a particular problem or weakness in your own writing, seek out books that also have that problem. (Searching reader reviews can help when looking for these.) Spotting an issue is half the battle, and it can be easier to see it in other people’s work.
  • Read books that excel in an area you’re looking to improve in. Reader reviews can be useful in finding these. Or take a look at my Queer SFF Spotlight series on this blog: as well as giving themed recommendations, I also give my thoughts on where each book excels or does something interesting craft-wise. That way, you can choose a book that will be useful for you and go into your reading with an idea of the elements to look out for.

2. How to read it

Ok, so you’ve got oodles of reading material. Now it’s time to think about how to hone that analytical eye so you can see how exactly the magic happens.

Observe and figure out your reactions

While you’re reading, observe your reactions. Are you immersed in the story? Are you rooting for the characters? Or are you bored, confused, frustrated?

Try to work out why you had those reactions. Do this on the large scale as well as the small. Did the ending fall flat for you? Work out why: pick apart the plot threads to try and find where they snagged. Did a particular passage give you goosebumps? Read it again, and notice how the author is using language to invoke emotion.

Sometimes the reasons for your reactions will be obvious. Other times, you might struggle to put your finger on why exactly something worked or didn’t work for you. This is good! It means that you’ve found an area of writing craft that you can dive into and expand your awareness of.

Put your writing hat on

The process of figuring out exactly how a piece of writing achieves an effect can be tricky. Here’s one method of getting closer to the text that might work for you.

Pick a passage (an effective one, an ineffective one, or just a random one) and write or type it out. Doing this can help flip your brain from ‘reading mode’ to ‘writing mode’, and get your analytical writer’s eye working. Things might jump out at you that you didn’t notice before.

Try going a step further and playing around with the words. If this were your own work, how would you write it differently? How would that change the end result for the reader?

If you’re struggling with a particular aspect of writing, try it out using the copied-out passage as a springboard. For example: you could try experimenting with the point of view, narrative distance, or tense, and seeing what effect that has on the passage.

Talk to other readers

Discussing books with other people can be hugely beneficial. Consider joining a book club or finding reading buddies who’ll pick books apart with you. Reader reviews can be really helpful for this, as well. Take a look at book blogs, Goodreads reviews and any press or critics’ reviews you can find. What worked or didn’t work for other people?

You can learn a lot by seeking out tastes and opinions that differ from your own. Maybe you didn’t connect with a particular character, but other people loved them. Try to figure out why that is. You don’t have to change your opinion—most everything about reading and writing is subjective, after all. But when developing your analytical eye, it’s important to be able to see beyond your personal response to the work and consider it from other readers’ points of view.

In summary

Honing your analytical eye and pulling apart the secrets of fiction will take time—and it’s a continual process of learning. You’ll be well on your way if you:

  • broaden your reading horizons,
  • observe your reading with curiosity
  • investigate through experimentation,
  • and discuss your reading with others.

There is no substitute for actually writing in order to improve your understanding of craft. But if you can equip reading as one of your writing tools by doing the above, then you’ll discover new things about writing every time you pick up a book.

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