Chefs around the world don’t merely copy the recipes of other great chefs. Instead, they dissect the completed dish, looking for ways to improve it and make it their own.
In the same sense, writers shouldn’t copy the masters. We’re not saying don’t learn from the masters, but rather dissect their work and see what makes it great.
Picasso developed his signature style of painting by studying the masters and experimenting with a variety of styles, theories, and ideas. Imagine if he had imitated instead of making the craft his own.
We learn by doing. Athletes watch other athletes play the game, and then try to make their own signature moves because if everyone copied LeBron James or David Beckham, soccer and basketball would be very different games. Writers learn by reading other writers and devising their own signature moves.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hours rule. He said that anyone who put 10,000 hours into practicing their craft would become masters.
We should study our craft and then get busy writing, yes? Wait, there’s something else you can do.
Reading Like a Writer
Most writers consume books like starving orphans who can never rely on getting 3 square meals a day. But we read novels for pleasure, right? We immerse ourselves in an imaginary world and lose track of time.
There’s a different way to read to learn how those with better skills than ours create their prose.
Author David Jauss states, “You must look at a book the way a carpenter looks at a house someone else built, examining the details in order to see how it was made.”
When you read like a writer, you’re not reading for comprehension of the ideas involved; rather, you’re identifying the choices an author made so you can better understand how to use choices in your own writing. You do this by carefully reading each word, thinking about what choices the author made, and asking yourself some questions.
How to Read Like a Writer
Don’t put your brain in neutral and zip through the words. Read each word and savor it. Notice the places where you get lost in the text. Now consider how the author achieved that feeling.
Read deeply. When we read for pleasure, we fly through the text. Slow down. Look beyond the words. What ideas resonate with you? Why? Try to see subtext behind the writing. Can you see the author anywhere on the page?
Identify those places you love, love, love. If you’re reading an e-book, it’s easy to highlight what you like. If you own the print book, use a red pen to underline what strikes you. If you’re borrowing the book, flag the great parts with a sticky note. Now analyze those spots. What makes them work?
Read with questions in mind. Which leads to the next point.
Questions to Ask While Reading
- How did the author write this particular passage? And more importantly, why did she write it that way or choose those words?
- How effective is the language she used? Is it too formal, too casual, or just right?
- How much dialogue did she use compared to description?
- How did the author make you read faster in some places and slower in others?
- What was powerful? What evoked some emotion?
- Why was it powerful? (You need to figure out what made you feel something.)
- How did the author achieve that powerful emotion? (Think of the tools she used, like mirroring or the rhythm of words chosen.)
- What did you find confusing?
- What would you have done differently?
Reading like a writer will help you understand the process of writing. You’ll learn how authors make a series of choices in what, how, why, and when they use the tools of the trade. This will help you make the tough decisions when it comes to your own writing.
Reading like a writer gives you an opportunity to think and learn from the masters, instead of copying them.
Finally, read widely. Don’t stick to your genre. Read fiction, non-fiction, poetry, blog posts, comics, everything.
Stephen King said it best:
”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
If you enjoyed this post about writing a novel, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:
- How to Foreshadow Like Hitchcock
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- 4 Plot Pitfalls You Need to Avoid
- The Four Drafts Your Novel Needs (and Why You Probably Won't Use a Single Word of Your First Draft!)