Learning to write: Reading


I’ve spoken before on the fact that writing is a skill, and as a skill it needs to be used to be kept sharp and to improve. The only way to do that is write (or revise). Sitting down and working is one of the most instructive and important ways one improves their writing skill. But there are other things that should supplement your writing. No, I don’t mean going out and getting your MFA in creative writing or reading every craft book you can get your hands on (not that there is anything with either option). What I mean is that you should read, a lot, and not just in the genre you’re writing.

What can reading novels possibly teach you about writing? Well, for starters, the more you write the more you’ll find yourself to be a critical reader (which can be a blessing and a curse.) You’ll start noticing what works for you as a reader, and what doesn’t–and if you study it, you’ll figure out why. You’ll notice things like pacing, description, and how backstory has been woven into the story. Were these aspects well done? Did you find yourself getting caught up in the story? (if so, that’s a good book to go back and figure out why and what pulled you in.) Or did you get bored and find yourself putting the book down a lot. Study that as well.–don’t be embarrassed to learn from someone else’s mistake. (Or at least, mistake for you. Reading is very opinion based.) 

Read in your genre so you know what is out there. Read outside your genre to see what you can glean from those books. Just read. And of course, take what you learn and write.

What are you currently reading? Have you consciously gleaned anything from it? (Even if you haven’t, your inner storyteller was paying attention and you probably picked up on tidbits you didn’t even realize.)

Have  a great first day of March everyone.


21 comments to Learning to write: Reading

  • Couldn’t agree more. Anyone who wants to write and doesn’t read is trying to design a car on the assumption nothing has been built since the Model T Ford. They are wasting their own time and that of anyone else who reads their stuff. I can say this, because there was a time early in my career when I know I was guilty of just that and it meant every book I tried to write was a reinvention of the wheel (or the Model T). Right now I’m reading Wildwood by Colin Meloy (from which I’m learning about weaving environmental concerns into plot) and Eloisa James’s Paris in Love, from which I’m learning about using real life anecdote to create mood and resonance.

  • You’re right, Kalayna. I have been paying attention more to plot, character, and pacing.

    I’m between books right now, but last night I finished Diana’s SHADOW CITY. I found myself guessing at the coming climax and was pleasantly surprised when the tension was ratcheted up even more than I expected. Next on the list is either THE HUNGER GAMES (which I can finally read now that I’m not writing present tense!) or Ally Carter’s ONLY THE GOOD SPY YOUNG (Gallagher Girls, book 4).

  • I just met with the writing club at my daughters’ school, and I gave the aspiring writers I met the same advice. Write as much as you can; read as much as you can.

    Currently I am reading WUTHERING HEIGHTS, because I didn’t read it earlier in life, and I have made up my mind this year to mix in some overlooked classics with the rest of my regular reading. I recently finished Paolo Bacigalupi’s THE WINDUP GIRL, which was brilliant. Then I read a book that I was asked to blurb. Next on my list, I believe, is Kate Elliott’s COLD MAGIC. But right now I’m very much enjoying the Bronte.

  • Cindy

    I read GREAT EXPECTATIONS recently because I somehow escaped high school with out reading it. Right now I am reading BURNING CITY by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Just finished HOME IMPREVEMENT, a book of short stories. I notice things while I read that I didn’t used to also. I can tell what’s going to happen sometimes in movies too. It’s just obvious when you understand plot and pacing more.

  • Gorby

    Sometimes it’s all too easy for me to get caught up in my WIPs and let my reading trail behind; conversely, sometimes I get caught up in reading and don’t get anything done on my WIPs. I guess it balances out in the end.

    Recently I’ve added comics to my diet, and am surprised to find that there’s much for me to learn from pacing—how action flows from through panels—and dialogue. When the dialogue’s off I really notice it, which forces me to take a deeper look at the way my own characters interact.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. I’ve been lurking for while and thought it was about time I dropped a comment.

  • Like Gorby, I have to find a balance. Most of the “reading” I get done is through audio books, which I listen to on my commute, when I’m cleaning, and when I’m at the gym. I get a lot out of them, but I know there’s stuff I’m missing by not actually seeing the words on the paper.

    I shouldn’t, but I tend to feel a little guilty or anxious when I set aside writing time to read. I don’t know that there’s anything I can do to rectify that, but I’m trying to create a schedule for myself so I can start balancing out different obligations in my life. I definitely need to work some reading time in there!


  • Oh, and I’m reading (in print!) NAKED CITY, a collection of short stories, and listening to SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigallupi and ATLANTIC by Simon Winchester. I just finished listening to HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE by Diana Wynn Jones, which I’d forgotten how much I adored. The most recent book I finished in print was THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, by John Green.

  • In Gene Wolfe’s “Three Rules for Writing”, number two is Read:

    “No matter what you may long to believe, you cannot become a writer without tens of thousands of hours of reading. You cannot please the master until you have been a master and know what is pleasing.”

  • I’m reading The Screaming Skull and Other Classic Horror, a short story collection. In the story I read last night it jumped out at me how breaking your own conceit damages the suspension of disbelief. If the story is supposedly being told by the old codger who heard the tale from his grandfather, he can’t relate something that by his own admission his grandfather wasn’t a witness to. The problem could have been easily solved – have the grandfather sneak along and listen in when he’d been told not to – but if the story makes a special point that he’s NOT there, he can’t then tell what he didn’t see or hear about. I like the oral story telling conceit, especially for ghost stories, but it has to be used consistently. Also, if you’re going to write dialect, do it consistently! Don’t have the old Irish codger use a heavy brogue only half the time.

  • I totally understand what you mean. Even when I was young I picked up on things like plot and pacing without fully realising what I was doing. But we shouldn’t just restrict ourselves to reading ficton. I find reading non-fiction sometimes just as inspiring as fiction. Learning how things work often gives me ideas to improve existing stories or create whole new ones.
    BTW currently reading Tamora Pierce’s Bloodhound.
    LScribeHarris – I love Diana Wynne Jones. Howls Moving Castle is magnificent and I love Hayao Miyazaki’s interpretation of it as well.

  • I cannot disagree that a writer needs to read like he or she needs to breathe. I have recently looked at two ways of reading (like a reader and like a writer). And I went with the latter.
    When I read a book, I ask myself a multitude of questions.
    A book I have recently read was “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. I have analysed the word choice [“the most English part of a man” still makes me snicker like a school girl], the way the writer handled humour and drama.
    I tried to identify scenes and sequels, I focused on the way the characters were shown and how the action was paced.
    And I must say, doing this does not take the joy out of reading. It just makes me appreciate writers and authors more.
    And when I think that maybe one day, some new writer will look at my book the same way, it adds to my motivation to write. :>

  • I write alot of fantasy but some of my favorite authors are Sarah Addison Allen, whom i’ve learned character building(i think she has some of the best out there) and Mr. Ray Bradbury who taught me imagery and pacing. I didnt realize it till I started reading through the eyes of a writer when id get stuck on my own peices, to find out why I loved certain books. Most books I add to my keeper shelf have great characters and ive know thats what I focus on.

    Oh, and um reading S. King’s ‘It’, G. R. R. Martin ‘Game of Thrones’ and S. Collins ‘Hunger Games’

  • I’m back to reading the War of Powers series…again…for about the fifth time…from Robert Vardeman and Victor Milan after dropping two self-pubs and realizing I need money for new books, desperately. Somebody publish me so I can afford to buy more books. 😉

    What this has taught me is that my internal editor cannot shut off anymore to just enjoy a story despite mistakes. And that I need an ereader. My laptop is still too big to take to bed, durn it!

  • My to-read shelf is a bit imposing. Still, my have-read shelf proves that I do read, darnit. Right now, I’m reading Working Stiff, by Rachel Caine. Yah, it’s about the walking dead, but it’s more mystery/sci-fi than anything else. Good read.

    On deck, I’ve got some Ben Bova novels, but I may table those and whip through A Princess of Mars before the John Carter movie comes out.

  • Razziecat

    David, I think you’re going to love Cold Magic… 🙂 Kate Elliott is amazing.

    I just finished Sarah Monette’s short story collection, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves. Monette is a good author to read if you want to study examples of non-traditional, off-beat protagonists–people who aren’t the stereotypical fantasy hero. Next I’ll be reading Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer.

    I admit to being biased toward fantasy and science fiction. I don’t often read outside of genre, although I have a bunch of books on my Amazon wishlist that aren’t fantasy/SF. It’s just that there are so many great F/SF books I haven’t read yet!

  • I’m only beta reading for people at the moment, but I find that very instructive too. I’m also waiting for the very final part to A Wheel of Time to come out (I started reading it in high school which was many years ago) and Robin Hobb’s final instalment in her Rain Wilds trilogy. Previously Lucienne talked about POV and various questions rose around first person. I think Robin Hobb does an excellent job with first person in her Assassin’s Apprentice and Soldier Son trilogies. Anyone looking to write first person fantasy should really have a look at those books.

  • The Mathelete

    I recently finished reading one by Ann Somerville, and I just bought both Faith and C.E. at the BaM — not yet read. I also read Gail Z. Martin’s Necromancer books a short time ago. And yet. . .

    Why won’t anyone write about strong, interesting LGBT characters without defaulting to really silly stereotypes? I mean, is it really that hard to imagine a feminine lesbian, a masculine gay man, or someone completely out of the box for writers? I try — God knows I try — to purchase and read cool books. And from Fuzzy Pot-head (sic) to Twilight to Necromancer to Ender to Lackey to whatever to , NOBODY writes about characters I can really, genuinely associate with. Hell, Tolkien did the best, and I spend the entire time reading begging Frodo and Sam to make out since they’re clearly in love (at least in my mind). Oh, was that taboo? Did I insult you? Welcome to my life.

    For me, writing is the answer to not being able to read what I want. I don’t want to be a professional writer — I have too damned much to do already. I just want SOMEONE to write a character set that I can associate with. I want someone to write a book where I go, “Oh my, I could be that guy.” Nobody does. Instead I get women writing gay men as women, guys writing lesbians as a wet dream, and everyone writing to stereotypes. I’m gay; I can fix your mower, car, computer, cell phone, dryer, vacuum cleaner, etc. I also enjoy (American) football, Ice Hockey, and anything that goes fast and does unreasonable damage to whatever it runs into. I don’t care for flowers or hair styles. Why does EVERY author seem to assume that all gay guys enjoy doilies and flowers and such? It makes me grumble and dissociate from the story.

    Maybe my demographic is too small. Maybe I have too much bias. Maybe I’m kind of nuts. Any or all of the above, I accept, but nobody seems to write for me. If you know of someone, somewhere publishing these kinds of stories, please, let me know. I’ll jaunt off to Amazon, SmashWords, seedy online place, BaM, the BN 30 miles away, or where ever to find these stories. I will pay. I make decent money working in tech. Please, won’t someone write a book with characters I can associate with? Oh wait, I guess I will — and have to the tune of nearly a million words. So, I guess I read myself until someone I can associate with comes along 😐

    Reading is NOT a good thing for my writing. Reading others only makes me angry, alienated, and sour. I’m probably just too polarized, but at the end of the day, having read hundreds and hundreds of books, I can honestly say, I associate with none of the characters in any deep and meaningful way. It’s really sad for me. I want a character where I can say, “OH, my! That could be me if I just lived in (x) and had (y) and did (z).” Not found it yet. If MWers know someone, I’d go buy pronto.

    I love math, mechanical things, computers, annoying stuff that most would avoid, and I LOVE reading. I just can’t find anyone to read who captures the voice I want to hear. I don’t know that it’s NOT out there, but I do know I’ve not found it yet. Until then, I think I’ll just re-read my own stuff. At least it gets the characters right.

    So, TL;DR. Nobody seems to write the characters I want to walk into a volcano with.

  • TwilightHero

    I second what sjohnhughes said about Robin Hobb’s work. Fitz’s tale as a royal bastard made assassin in the Farseer books blew me away with how real she made him, and though I’ve only read the first of the Soldier Son trilogy, that one’s worth a look too.

    I’m currently reading Ways of Reading, 2nd edition, an anthology of essays, excerpts and short stories intended for college students (which I am not…yet). A lot of it isn’t at all what I’d normally read, so I think I’m getting a lot out of it – insights on the way economies and cultural values shape individuals that I would never have thought of otherwise. That and the importance of little things like sentence and paragraph structure, word choice, and overall clarity in writing. The success of any piece of writing, from essays trying to make people think to novels trying to tell a good story, hinges a great deal on getting your point across. This is obvious, I know; I’ll bet everyone here is aware of it on some level. I just never thought of it in so many words.

  • I’m currently reading Children of Amarid by David Coe.

    It’s signed and everything. 🙂 I’m enjoying it.

    I’ll be honest, it was a little slow to start, and a little bit generic in the beginning. But the pacing improved considerably by the 1/3rd mark.

    Typically, with a lot of books I’ve been reading lately, I’ve been keeping my critical eye on, but with this one I’ve mostly been reading it as a cozy read. Between the day job and lots of housework on the home front, I’ve been fried and in many ways Children of Amarid has been good for unwinding with.

  • Mathlete, there are plenty of books in that genre you’re seeking. Widdershins, for example, is published by Eternal Press. My own knowledge is a bit lacking, but it does exist.

  • My reading is usually all over the map. My current (last six months) reading list includes some of the MW family (Faith, David, and Stuart), Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche), and Dante (The Divine Comedy). Currently open but not finished are Catie’s Joanne Walker books (book 3), Sabatini’s Captain Blood, and Mika Waltari’s The Wanderer (again). In the queue: More of Catie, more of Mika Waltari, a couple Mike Resnick books, and a book on Ainu (Japanese) folklore.

    Every book I read teaches me something more about writing. Every word I write teaches me more about reading.