By Claire Tucker
If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, then doubtless you’ve come across Stephen King’s advice:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
This is perfect! you think. All I have to do is read a lot, and then write! How wonderful!
Well, not exactly. Yes, you need to read. And yes, you need to write. But just doing these two things does not a successful writer make.
It’s how you approach reading and how you approach writing that matter.
Allow me to illustrate using art (pun intended). Now, I’m not an artist. So when I look at a picture, I see the picture. A painting of a Renaissance-era woman with a pretty smile. A ship with tattered sails upon a storm-tossed sea. A landscape depicting a valley cast in golden light.
Now, I’m blessed to have many friends who are talented artists. When they look at the picture, they see both the picture and the structural elements behind it. So when they look at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, they see the skill that went into painting a lifelike portrait. They see the composition and color and shading and proportions. They look at the painting of the ship and start studying the waves, looking for how the artist created the effect he wanted. They look at the landscape and see perspective and use of color to create depth.
They see both the picture and how it was created. And then they go home and try to recreate or capture a portion of those paintings in their own work.
This, my friends, is how we as writers should approach our craft. When we read, we shouldn’t just read, seeing the story only for what it is. No, we have to be intentional in our reading, looking past the witty dialog to see the characters behind it. When we come across a well-executed plot twist, we have to look past the twist and see the foreshadowing and setup that preceded it. When we encounter descriptions that bring a scene to life and lift the action off the page, we have to see how the writer did this.
And then we have to go and try our hands at recreating the believable dialog, unexpected plot twists, and lifelike descriptions.
But it all starts with reading. If we want to be writers, then we have got to read like writers.
How do we go about this? Here are a few tips:
- Read in your genre. Just as an artist who wants to paint portraits will spend time studying other portraits, so we as writers need to read the work of other writers in our genre. We need to study these books, looking for what is similar through them all so that we can fulfill our readers’ expectations. Also, look out for how an author might twist the normal to produce the unexpected. Then study your work and see if you have all the expected elements in your story and if there is some way you can twist the norm.
- Read outside of your genre. Especially if you’re new to writing. Like an art student studies multiple styles of art and then tries each one, so too must writers. How do you know you don’t like horror? How do you know you don’t like romance? Or action? Or something that’s more similar to Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park? How do you know if you don’t read and don’t try? And if you already know your preferred genre? Then read outside your genre anyway. You’ll naturally be more analytical because you won’t be swept away by passionate love for the story you’re reading. You’ll be more aware of the construction of the story. You’ll see the plot twists being set up. You’ll notice how the themes are brought into the tale. You’ll appreciate the character development and arcs.
- Read good books and bad books. Good books because they show you how to craft an amazing story; bad books because they show you how not to do it. But when you read bad books, try and work out what made them bad. How did they not fulfill your expectations? Where could they have been improved?
- Reread books. The first time you read a book, you’re discovering the story. Often, you will miss the little details that the writer sprinkled through the story, the ones setting up the plot twist or revealing a character’s true intentions. But when you reread the book, you’ll spot the details because you’ll be looking for them.
- If you know what your Achilles heel as a writer is, then pay particular attention to that element in the stories you read. Maybe you struggle to bring your settings to life. Maybe your characters feel one-dimensional. Maybe your villains aren’t believable or your plots are as flat as the paper your stories are printed on. You know what you need to improve in your stories; when you read, pay attention to that element.
Being a writer should change how you approach reading. Like an artist who sees beyond the picture to the elements that created it, you need to see beyond the story to how it was created.
Remember: reading is not a pasttime for writers.
It’s part of the job description.
Claire Tucker is a Christian fantasy writer and freelancing copy editor and proofreader. Stories are her passion, as is helping writers polish their work to the highest standard. She lives in South Africa and enjoys spending time outdoors, reading books of any genre, and doing a variety of crafts and needlework. You can find her on Instagram @clairetucker_writer and on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/claire-tucker-editor.
This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.