In our article Three Reasons Writers Should Read, we discussed how many writers – established and aspiring alike – aren’t reading, and why this prevents them from developing their writing skills and keeps them disconnected from their craft. There’s no escaping it – at some point, you’ll need to actually read if you want to become a better writer.
If you’re still unsure whether it’s worth it to take the time to read, please go ahead and read that article before returning to this one. Today’s article deals with reading deliberately and getting the most out of your reading time.
1. read to become a better writer by reading ‘hard’ books
On a recent episode of the podcast Freakanomics Radio, host Stephen Dubner interviewed K. Anders Ericsson about his theory of deliberate practice, which states that quality of practice is just as important as the quantity of it. Take that, 10,000 hours enthusiasts!
The most important aspect of practice? K. Anders Ericsson claims that most people are capable of improving their abilities in almost any field or skill-type. The reason the majority of people plateau is simple: after they reach a certain point, they stop practicing deliberately and ‘go through the motions’ – they no longer actively push themselves to do better by A), trying to improve specific areas of performance, and B), do things that they are currently unable to.
The concept of deliberate practice can easily be applied to reading to improve your writing skills – you’ll never get the same things from The Animorphs series as you would from Lolita. (Huge Animorphs fangirl, by the way.) There’s a reason we start out in first grade reading The Berenstain Bears and end it reading loftier titles like The Catcher in the Rye.
So read things that make you go ‘huh?’ sometimes. It’s okay if it takes you longer to read than normal – your brain needs time to digest!
2. read to become a better writer by reading outside your genre
In a way, this is similar to read above your current level – how can you ever expect to learn something new if you’re always reading the same tired tropes? And, in a slightly more ‘meta’ train of thought, how can you know if those traits are universal, or if they’re only specific to Science Fiction (or whatever your genre is)? Do I need to remind you of the people who spent their entire lives watching shadows in a cave?
Here’s a tip: other genres are treasure troves of untapped potential. What if Joss Whedon had never merged the tropes of the Western and Science Fiction genres? We’d never have had the pleasure of watching Firefly. Taking elements common to one genre and inserting them into another is a great way to refresh tired material. The best part is, unless your readers read more than one genre, they’ll never know!
Having elements of other genres in your work also helps make it more rounded – in Science Fiction, aliens and advanced technology might be the main course, but many also have a generous helping of adventure, romance, and suspense, as well. Reading in these genres will give you the tools to do it right.
3. read to become a better writer by reading deliberately
This one is hard. The reason most writers start writing is because they love to read. They enjoy being swept up in a story.
Unfortunately, once you begin honing your craft, reading won’t be as easily enjoyable anymore. In a lot of ways, becoming a writer is like becoming a magician – the more tricks of the trade you learn, the more difficult it is to find a magic act – or book – that actually amazes and enthralls you. Things that were once invisible to you – the way the magician moves their hand, plot structure, character arcs – will suddenly seem glaringly obvious.
This is both a good and bad thing. On one hand, it means that you’re becoming a better writer. On the other, it means that it’s more difficult to find books that give you that same experience that caused you to start writing in the first place. It’s one of the trade-offs of mastering the craft of writing. Your friends may be raving about a book while you find it trite and boring.
If this doesn’t describe you, don’t feel relieved just yet. This awareness is something you must foster. Reading passively is not enough (see the above notes about deliberate practice). I suggest taking notes while you read. Write down any plot devices you notice, along with page numbers. Question everything. Mark down parts that grip you emotionally, intellectually. Mark down sections that are boring. Ask yourself why? Does this work? What makes me like this character/scene/premise so much? What makes me hate it? Can I emulate this in my own writing?
Every so often, you’ll find a book that takes you away, that gives you that old pre-writer experience. This is a gift – cherish it. Enjoy it. Allow yourself to be swept away, deliberate reading be damned.
But when you’re done, go back and figure out what made this story so much more gripping than the rest – because that what you want to do in your own work.