In my mid-twenties I had a serious lack of inspiration. It may have been from being over-tired, questioning my will to continue writing, or any number of things. The point is that any time I tried to write I couldn’t come up with a thing. That’s when I grabbed a book off of my bookshelf and just began copying it into my computer. I didn’t intend to re-publish or claim as my own, but my thought was that if I start writing something good, then perhaps this would spark me to regain some sort of focus on writing. Rather, this practice did something else.
The name of that book was Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier written in 1936. Coincidentally, I reread the book last year. So, what this little exercise of 50 pages taught me was more how to read as a writer, than to inspire me to write. Though, in reality it probably did both. In this blog post I would like to share with you, the five tips to read like a writer that I learned from that simple exercise nearly twenty years ago. And guess what? I still practice all of these today.
This post almost didn’t see the day of light. I assumed that this type of blog post had been written countless times, and it has. Though, when reading through the other posts I found that one writer after another dove deep, really deep into books. Suggestions such as breaking each small section up to identify how it contributes to the overall structure, evaluating the protagonists achievements and failures as they lead into the climax, and forcing yourself through a book you hate. While, these may provide good lessons in a classroom, my point in writing this post is to provide easy ways to read as a writer. Hopefully, these tips are as easy and beneficial to you as they are to me.
It’s okay to reread
Sometimes when I read, and I know you do too, I will get a few pages from where I started and realize that my mind was wandering so much I had no idea what I just read. Instead of going back I just continue forward. I think this is the behavior of a reader, not a writer. Reading for writers is all about learning how to write from published writers.
When I was typing out the first fifty pages of Jamaica Inn I found myself not only reading and typing, but continuously reading, typing, and going back to reread and ensure what I typed was correct. This gave me a deeper insight into the story, character, description, and how the author used dialogue and description. It was one of the best educational experiences on writing I’d ever completed.
So, whether you reread a few pages your mind skipped over, or you reread an entire book, rereading will be helpful for a writer. Since this time I have reread dozens of books each year realizing that in many ways the second and third time I read a book is a new experience.
Track unique words
A college professor at the University of Southern Mississippi told me a trick she used when reading. Every time she came across a word she either didn’t know or felt was unique to her she would write it down. I adapted that same idea and added more to it. I had a notebook and every time I came across a new or unique word to me, or even a “good” word that I wanted to keep fresh in my memory I would write the word, definition, and a sentence or two using the word. This taught me to not only expand my vocabulary, but also taught me a more significant lesson. Writing is not about using “big” words, it is about using the “right” words.
Many people read and see a word they don’t know or recognize and assume it means the same thing as a common word and is just the writer’s way of being fancy. But, the thought is flawed. While the English, especially American, language has thousands of words that are similar, most of these words also have slightly different meanings. To the average person speaking this may not be a big deal so we interchange these words, but to a writer and more so and editor and publisher, the difference is real.
A good example of this is using meretricious instead of words like gawdy, cheap, tawdry, showy, or flashy. Meretricious does signify all of these words, but in a false, vulgar, or insincere way. So, while similar, it is different in an important way.
By using the right word every time your writing not only reads smarter, but also is smarter.
Don’t forget the rule of communication when it comes to dialogue
Dialogue is a part of writing that stumps a lot of people. This is of course funny since most, if not all people talk a lot more than they write. However, it is important to note that dialogue in conversation is slightly different than dialogue in text. First, in text, using non-words such as uh, ah, hmm, isn’t as “real” as one would think. We all use these words – guilty, but should they be used? One good way to learn from dialogue is to pick up a book in your genre and begin reading. Focus only on the dialogue and surrounding text. When considering dialogue remember that it is not just the words in quotes. Sometimes great dialogue is more about the short text leading up to it, and after that enhance the words in quotes.
What do they say, communication is only 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal? So, then why would our characters depend only on their dialogue to get their point across?
By focusing on sections of dialogue and then trying to replicate that section with your own dialogue you can gain a sense of clarity and improved writing that may surprise you.
Make note of good description
There are several ways to develop a beautiful and descriptive writing style such as reading or writing poetry. Though, one of the simplest ways to develop your descriptive writing skills is to replicate tip two on this list and simply write down descriptive passages you enjoy in the book. By doing this you learn a couple things. First, you can later break down that passage to realize what you love about it. Second, this exercise also teaches you to focus on what you are reading more than if you haphazardly read a book.
By understanding how a writer describes a character, a scene, or situation you can implement those same techniques into your own writing. The more books you read and writer’s you adapt your style from the more you will develop your own writing style.
Ask questions to predict the future
Much of writing is about asking, “what would a real character do in this situation?” Of course, we don’t always hit that mark, and few writers probably sit at their desk asking that question to their self. But, when reading, this is an opportunity for you to ask those questions to predict what will happen.
I find that when I am watching a movie there are few movies that aren’t predictable. This is partly due to me watching movies as if I were writing the script. As I watch I pay attention to what is happening and ask myself, how would I write the script? Yes, there are surprises which is why some movies seem better than others. But, for most, a good script writer has a clear idea of what will happen next.
This is the same for writing a book. So, as you read, ask yourself what would you do next if you were the writer? Would the lead character die, fall in love, or make an unexpected decision? While that already published book won’t change, what this exercise will do is teach you how to understand why a writer did what they did. It’s much like the butterfly effect, but in a sense that you don’t already know the outcome.
The butterfly effect is where a minute change in one place has significant consequences in a larger picture. So, if you were to go back in time and step on a butterfly the consequences to what you used to know as the future can mean a nuclear apocalypse. By evaluating what you think you would do while reading a book, you can see what the writer actually did and why they did it. Had the writer written your version who knows where that would have led the characters. In fact there is an entire genre built on this called “alternate ending” focused on the what-ifs in history.
Reading as a writer is a little different than if you are just reading to pick up a book and enjoy some time away from your everyday. Yes, you can still discover worlds you’ve never dreamed of, fall in love with characters, and dive into new discoveries. But, you can also find a book on your shelf as one of the most influential writing courses you’ve ever taken. Reading as a writer is about paying attention to words, description, and dialogue while always asking the question, “why?”
Id’ love to hear your thoughts on how to read as a writer, and little tips you’ve picked up along the way.