Jo(e) Public has been reading for centuries. So powerful was the ability to read considered, that for a time much longer than we can name many were deliberately kept illiterate.
For years you read and fell in love with a stories, hating or finding others wanting. Not until you began writing did reading take on another meaning for you.
The various reasons behind why people read are numerous, and whether its self-improvement or escapist enjoyment becoming a writer doesn’t necessarily change why you read, but it should shifts and change your choices. It must, for being a writer is learnt through reading as much as it is through writing.
When we say this, what do we actually mean?
It means learning to recognise how language is the linchpin of all writing. It means becoming more aware of what’s available, especially within the past five to ten years. It means you should be choosing books you wouldn’t normally read. It means selecting books from genres you’ve never been partial too.
Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying,
“You are what you’ve read. As a writer you are a sum total of all you’ve experienced and what you’ve read throughout your life.”
This quote is not verbatim but it does encapsulate the reality of a writer’s education and working life.
Part of learning to read for something beside enjoyment is learning how to recognise how another writer put their story together. How they have used language, created and built their characters’ personalities. How they showed without telling, the quality of their dialogue, and so on. But it’s more than this, it’s critiquing. As a writer you must learn to be honest without prejudice or conceit, and ask the crucial question;
“How and why does the story work, if not, why not?”
In other words it’s not just about scooping out the competition! It’s about learning to recognise what works and when it doesn’t work, how and why it failed. This is why its necessary to read outside your comfort zone, from these books you learn how difference genre works, and how they differ. It also offers up the chance to learn how language is utilised, and shaped by writers within their storytelling. Another two significant questions are
“How does an author who writes across several genres change their writing style?”
“And what remains the same?”
Consider these two authors for example, John Banville who writes under the name Benjamin Black or Nora Roberts who writes under the name J.D. Robb.
Many writers have developed this ability to reflect quite instinctively, but for most of us, it’s a necessarily discipline we must develop. This doesn’t mean you have to give up your favourite books, guilty pleasures and other reading material. It just means you must learn to multi-task!
As a writer you will be use to keeping a notebook handy to jot down those ideas on the go, bits of dialogue or things you’ve seen that you feel you can use in your writing.
As a novice close reader keep a separate notebook and jot down your reactions and observations to the books you are reading, even if it’s a book you’d never admit to reading in public! As Francine Prose makes clear in her book ‘Read Like a Writer’
“..The best way to learn how to write is to read widely… to read closely, to read every word and pay attention to the words used.”
Words, for writers, are the
“raw material out of which literature is crafted”.
Words, for readers, constitute a finished work. Francine Prose suggests that the reader consider each word used and ask:
“..What sort of information is each word choice trying to convey?”
For some of us, that conscious slowing down of reading won’t always be easy, but with practice it’ll become almost like second nature.
Take this opportunity to re-read novels, poems, short stories, comics and graphic novels you haven’t read in years. Use the familiarity of the material as an anchor to develop your confidence in close reading, as well as learning exactly why you like or loved that particular story or poem in the first place. As a writer, how has your relationship with your favourite story or poem changed, and if so, why?
There will be times when doing this will feel inconvenient. You may even be dismissive of the whole idea as it will take time away from your own writing. However, developing the habit of reading within this context will increase the knowledge of and improve the quality your language, and storytelling.