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Novel Ideas: How Reading Critically Strengthens Your Writing

October 6, 2023

No matter where they are on their writing journey, a good writer will always be looking for ways to improve their craft. Even so, the question, “How do I become a better writer?” is often asked by new and young writers. And just as often, the answer they receive is, “Read more.”

That’s it. 

“But,” you might say, “I already read a lot! And I’m not getting any better.” Or you might be one of those rare kinds of people who want to write but don’t like to read and ignore that advice. In either case, what “read more” doesn’t tell you is how to read.

This is crucial.

To become a better writer, you need to learn how to read critically, how to read widely, and how to apply what you read.

Let’s break this down.

Reading critically

When trying to refine your writing skills, you have to be able to read through the eyes of a writer. This is a craft. You must study and practice it. The same way a musician must study the components of music, you should study writing methods, sentence structures, and syntax.

Have a note-taking method available whenever you read. This can be a physical notebook, scribbles in the margins of your book, notes on an ebook, or text on a word document. Pay attention to the things in the list below and take notes on them when relevant:

  • Things you struggle with: Identify your writing weaknesses and analyze how others do them correctly. What is different? Put what you find into practice. Imitate the authors you’ve found and then try it on your own.
  • Storytelling elements: Focus on things such as
    • Word choice (is it literal or is there meaning behind it?)
    • Sentence structure (particularly how an author starts sentences and how many times they alter the structure before a pattern restarts)
    • Use of tenses (does it switch at any point?)
    • Themes (how do these relate to genre?)
    • Character perspectives (how many, and what point-of-view?)
    • Narrative techniques (is there a framing narrative?)
    • Plot devices (which ones are being used and how? What do they do for the story?)
    • Worldbuilding (does it feel natural and expansive or forced and dull?)
    • Book structure (are chapters organized chronically or some other way?)
  • Breaking the rules: Did an author ignore any literary rules? Where? Did it work or fail? Why?
  • What works and what doesn’t? Why? At this point, take a look at reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble to see what others thought of the book. Try to understand what worked for them and what didn’t. Compare it to your own experience with a book.

If you come across any passages that leave a big impression on you, rewrite those passages to better understand the writing style and what the author is doing effectively.

Taking notes keeps you accountable to maintaining that analytical point of view when reading. It’s okay to read for entertainment. But if that’s all you’re getting out of the experience, then you won’t strengthen your craft. 

The difficulty with writing as a craft is that its tools are things that every person, writer or not, has access to and uses every day: words. That can make it seem simple to the outsider. A person can decide they want to be a writer without putting any effort into it. Will they be a good writer? Probably not. 

The difference lies in understanding the many ways you can use words. Reading critically and learning from it is how you do that.

Resources for analyzing and improving writing

Supplementing your novel reading for resources on craft can help you further develop your skills. If you are interested, here are some books on analyzing literature and improving your writing.

Analyzing literature:

How to write well:

Elements of storytelling:

Reading widely

A well read person is someone who understands, or is at least familiar with, conventions in multiple genres of storytelling. A well read writer is someone who can use that knowledge to their advantage.

When looking for material to read, the options are limitless. Read anything and everything. But, how does that help you? Here are some tips to help you choose what to read.

  • Explore genres. Reading in different genres allows you to explore and broaden your creativity. Each genre has certain characteristics, conventions, and themes. Reading one genre may help you to see another genre from a new angle. It can also inspire you to add elements from one into another, which creates a unique element to your own story. Understanding these factors will make you aware of what certain audiences and literary agents look for and help you tailor your story to meet – or break – their expectations. If you dive into a new genre, be sure to look up award-winning and popular titles in that category and read those first.
  • Read what you like. Finding something you like can help you get through materials more easily. If there is an author whose works you enjoy, read everything you can by them. If there is a genre you prefer, explore books from different authors in it. Critically reading the book versions of your favorite movies – or re-reading your favorite books – can also be a good exercise.
  • But also what you don’t like. Reading things you don’t like every now and then can expand your knowledge. Identifying why you don’t like something or what you don’t like about it can help you avoid those things in your own writing and create the best version of your story. If you read genres or stories you don’t typically read, you might also discover something new that you do enjoy.
  • Find shorts and simple stories. If you’re new to writing or have a short attention span starting out, look for short-form fiction such as short stories, novellas, or excerpts from novels. You can also find stories with simple language in serialized novels such as The Hardy Boys. This is a good way to study style and voice before moving on to more complex story structures.

Where to find books

If you are struggling to find titles, Goodreads, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon Books have many reading lists, tags, and recommendations. For something more tailored, visit whatshouldireadnext.com to input your reading preferences to find suggestions paired to you.

You can visit your local library, bookstore, or thrift store to find physical copies of books. Garage sales occasionally have a hidden gem (and, it’s much easier to allow yourself to write notes in the margins of second-hand copies). You can find cheap books online at Thrift Books, Abebooks, Better World Books, and Alibris.

Many libraries offer Libby, a virtual library app, if you enjoy ebooks or audiobooks.* Project Gutenberg and Open Library are also good archives that offer open source novels free to the public. 

*Audiobooks count when “reading” to improve your writing. Listening to stories being spoken aloud helps you learn how to hear natural speech patterns (and when something doesn’t sound right), break down prose, and identify story beats. If listening is easier for you, be sure to use this format. 

Applying what you read

Now that you know how to read and what to read, it’s time to put what you’ve learned into action.

Take your notes and set up writing exercises for yourself. If you found several good examples of dialogue, choose a writing prompt or set up a situation similar to one of your examples, then create a scene with dialogue yourself. 

Refer back to your notes as often as you need to. If you keep putting them into practice, you will eventually find that you don’t need them. The things you learned will stay with you, and strengthen your writing as you go on.

Whenever you finish a piece, analyze it to see what worked and what didn’t. If you still aren’t satisfied, try again. You can also practice pre-writing exercises to help you get into the flow before you sit down to write seriously.

Be dedicated to your craft

Ultimately, the most effective way to improve your writing is to be dedicated to it. This isn’t a race – you don’t have to read fast or write ten books a year. Speed readers risk skipping important details anyway and speed writers can get burnout fast, or publish poor-quality works. You should, however, be making consistent and intentional time to write. Progress, no matter how fast or slow, will always stay with you.

Start slowly by only reading for 10-15 minutes or 5-10 pages at a time. Whatever works best for you. As you make reading a habit, it will become easier and even more enjoyable. 

As always, have fun with it! Branch out into other storytelling mediums, such as TV series, movies, theater, and video games. Practice identifying elements of stories within those. Explore history to find stories and gain perspective. These will only fuel your imagination.

Whether you are a new writer or someone looking to improve, cultivating a diverse and analytical approach to the world of storytelling is key to refining your writing skills.

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