6 Reading Tips for Improving Your Writing
Anybody Can Write a Novel Version 2.0
Chapter 1 “Beginning to Write” – Section 2 “Constructive Reading”
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“That’s when I started being a writer. I got the Tarzan books and studied how Edgar Rice Burroughs kept the pace going, because he was really good at that. And I studied Stephen King. Although Burroughs wasn’t that great on character, he was great on pace and adventure, and King is very good on character as well as pace. I read the same book over three times to see how it was put together. That’s how I trained myself to write.”
-Nancy Farmer (from the bio of her personal website)
For the lack of step-by-step guides that exist to teach us the secrets of writing from the great authors, there are artifacts that are just as valuable and which are available in abundance. These artifacts are their books, the stories they’ve written with all of the clues to their success. And there is nearly an infinite amount of literature available, with an array of styles that feature so many strengths and elements unique to each that we can pick and choose which we want to learn most. We can even look at terrible books in order to dissect them and learn what made them so bad. So all we need in order to learn how to write the way we want is to pick the elements of style from books and authors that we want for our own, and then learn to read in such a way that we can carry these elements over into our own writing.
Tip 1: Read a story that you love, and allow yourself to be immersed in the story.
Likely, you already know which authors you wish to emulate and even which stories most inspire you to want to create worlds and characters of your own (if not, you should find quite a few new ones by the time you finish this tutorial series). The first time you read a book, you should focus on it as a whole—not a summation of parts. Analyze how passages, actions, and characters make you feel, how they shape your ideas about the story, and whatever other impact they have on you when you are immersed in the world. Write these down in a journal, along with page and chapter numbers for later reference, and begin to think about why these elements made you feel as you did.
Tip 2: Begin to mark your books with pens and pencils, and write comments in the margins.
The second time you read a book, you want to begin to understand the function of the elements within, and to read actively. When we use pens and pencils to take the time to mark and take notes about what we are reading (or even just use an e-reader that allows us to make in-text comments), we take the passive activity of witnessing a story unfold before us, and turn it into a participatory activity where we can interact with and even act as students to our favorite authors. Not only that, but writing in the margins forces us to take our time with the text and to see it as a collection of parts, as opposed to a complex whole that is too much to take in all at once. Of course, I never mark up my hardbacks or first editions, so I don’t recommend that to you either. I usually buy a mass-market paperback of a story I already own for this purpose, and you’ll probably want to do the same.
Tip 3: Mark everything you really like and dislike.
The next step in becoming an active and dissecting reader is to just discern what you like from what you do not. Circle or underline every passage that you think good or bad, and write in the margins the reason that you either did or did not like a segment. Authors are not above mistakes and you should be sure note them so that you do not repeat the error. Alternatively, you may just think of a way that something could have been done a little better or just different in a way that suits your own style. So feel free to mark ideas for alterations liberally.
Keep in mind that, however, that it is possible that your distaste for a scene is necessary. If you are reading a book about children dying, for example, perhaps the author wanted your stomach to turn and for you to feel uncomfortable, as opposed to making it seem like a cool actions scene. Maybe it was difficult to read but gave the reader a greater sense of triumph when the hero overcame the odds and/or made the audience feel more empathy for them. When you find these scenes of necessary discomfort, give them their own marking. Because while you may not like it, the author has done something effectively–something you can learn and emulate.
Tip 4: Mark how the author conducts dialogue, exposition, descriptions, and pacing.
When I began writing, I did not understand how to punctuate and format dialogue in a way that wasn’t either confusing or jarring to the flow of the story. I didn’t know how to reveal my world to my audience except by my characters unnaturally taking the time to explain things they already knew. My descriptions were virtually nonexistent, and there was no pacing to speak of. However, all of these elements can be done well, and in a variety of different ways, depending upon your style. Make notes and compare how different authors achieve success in dialogue, exposition, descriptions, and pacing, as well as the differences in effect that they have on you as a reader. You may not catch everything at first, but the longer you spend writing and the more you reread the same work, the more you will catch and be able to understand in each go-through.
Tip 5: Type out a full chapter from a book that is closest to the style you wish to write in.
After having taken note of the effects that words, sentences, and passages have on you, and then having analyzed them each individually, the following step will be to use them. Going back to the analogy of writing as a martial art, this will not be your opportunity to see how their storytelling techniques apply to your personal style, but to learn to use it to its maximum potential as the author intended. Think of it as taking a break from creating your own mixed martial arts style to understand the full power of pure kung-fu from a master of the traditional style, by practicing it alongside him/her. By copying out a chapter from a previously written work, you will have the opportunity to understand how every word, mark of punctuation, sentence break, spacing, word, sentence, paragraph, and page comes together with the rest to form a complete and living story.
Tip 6: Edit and revise the full chapter that you have copied.
Once you have an understanding of the purpose and use of every individual piece of the chapter that you have copied, you may begin to notice that there are some unnecessary pieces just floating around. Alternatively, you may find that there was a small passage that was not as clear as it could have been, or that there was another writer who was able to do something better than what it was done in that particular chapter. At the very least, you will know that there some things in that writer’s style that you want to do differently, just because of personal preference. No matter the reason, edit the story to reflect the changes that you want, and then look over it to see if your attempts had their desired effect. Even if the edits do not better the chapter, you will have grown in learning how to identify problems in a story and change them—something you can carry over into the revision of your own work. I’ll go into greater depth about the great importance of revising other writers’ work and to your own personal growth as a storyteller in the tutorial on editing.
Weekly Recommended Reading: Nancy Farmer’s Online Biography (Very Short) For insight into how someone with no formal training in writing became one of the most powerful storytellers of our time.
Write-a-Novel Exercise 1.2
Type out a full chapter of the book which best reflects the style of the novel you wish to write, and then revise it as described above. Post the one page you feel best reflects the changes you made to the work, along with the original version, in the post. Explain the revisions that you made to the work, as well as why you made them.
Comment on other members’ posts by analyzing whether or not the revisions added to the quality of the story, and then offer advice for how the original poster could better achieve the effect they were attempting with their revision.
For copyright reasons, please attribute all credit to the original author—including name, edition, publisher, page number, and chapter—and write an introduction in which you explain the educational purpose of the exercise. Also cite Fair Use 1. Text of Section 107 of title 17, United States Code as amended in 1990 and 1992 for the legal right of reproduction for the purpose of commentary and education.
Click here to see a sample of my own first chapter exercises.
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