What Writers Can Learn from Reading

Reading is a valuable hobby for the writer, as it provides numerous benefits:

  • Periodic reading of classics can help improve writing skills. Grammar, proper word choice, structure, and word flow tend to come a little more naturally. The current read may unconsciously influence the writer’s style a little, but the pros probably outweigh the cons. My dad (with a literature degree) knew someone who couldn’t pass an English test. After my dad recommended that he read some classics, instead of study guides, he actually passed the test next time. This may be an exceptional case, but there are many who advocate the benefits that reading classics has to offer.
  • Reading top sellers in the genre can be a valuable form of research. Think about how the book became popular – especially, if the author didn’t have a big name when the book was first published. Study the storyline, characterization, writing style, organization, and anything that might attract readers. Strive to find out what made the book successful. Don’t copy the same ideas; readers may not respond well to this. Rather, try to find general ideas that can be applied to your own writing, without doing exactly the same thing. For example, don’t create similar characters; instead, discover how the author made those characters so memorable, and learn how to apply it to make your own unique characters just as memorable. Consider what the book doesn’t do. This is important because some of the things that top sellers don’t do may have a tendency to deter sales. Each genre has some unspoken rules that can significantly affect sales and reviews.
  • A writer can see what the latest trends are, especially in the author’s genre. Following the trends may or may not be the best thing, but it’s important to be aware of what’s going on. The expectations of the target audience always merit consideration. If a new release is significantly different than most other new releases, for example, it might be desirable to make this clear in the blurb; maybe it will be a good thing, and maybe not, but readers are more likely not to be upset this way. If for no other reason, a fan might ask an author why he or she didn’t follow a popular trend. The author will look a little foolish if he or she is unaware of the trend.
  • Practice thinking from the reader’s perspective. An author writes a book from his or her own perspective. However, the reader’s perspective (more precisely, the general reaction from the target audience) is ultimately much more valuable to the book’s marketability than the writer’s perspective. Think about what’s important to you when you’re buying and reading books. Try to wear your reading shoes when you analyze your story, writing, characterization, style, formatting, cover, blurb, and even your marketing. The more you read, the more you can relate to this perspective, and the better your chances of looking at your own book critically. It’s no substitute for the valuable resource of external opinions, but it will prove valuable, since ultimately you have to make decisions about your book even if you do receive input or help.
  • See first-hand that even the most popular authors receive criticism. No book pleases every reader. Books with hundreds of reviews have some awful ones, even if the average star rating is very high. Seeing this for yourself may help you better learn to deal with criticism.
  • Become more familiar with the buying process. This can help you with your own marketing. How do you buy books? What keywords do you use in online searches? Do you browse thumbnails? Do covers play an important role when you shop? What effect does the blurb have on you? What kinds of covers appeal to you? Study the blurbs that sell books to you to learn what they did successfully. Do you check out the Look Inside? If so, what do you look for? What price range do you look for? Which reviews tend to influence you? Do you review books? What kinds of marketing tend to influence you? Explore the author’s marketing pages and try to learn some tricks of the trade. There is much that can be learned from the buying process.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

14 comments on “What Writers Can Learn from Reading

  1. Love this. I just bought a copy of Game of Thrones so I can mark up all the areas where Martin just nails it perfectly and where I don’t (dialog tags and settings are going to be all kinds of highlighted). I’m considering it more of a textbook than a novel!

  2. Great post. I’ve been wanting it to take a step further lately, typing out my favorite novels. A screenwriter I like said he recommended typing out Red Harvest. I’m ready to go on The Sun Also Rises and Huck Finn. I know that Hunter Thompson typed out Fitzgerald to find his own style. I also am considering translating my favorite short stories and novellas by Spanish writers. That’s what a lot of them do to us–Javier Marías comes to mind–he translated writers like Robert Louis Stevenson on his way to fame.

    I very much like, though, how you broke down how to read as a writer. I went to university in English and creative writing and never really learned this skill there, but funny thing, I was expected to. There’s a lot to explore here, as far as making analytical reading geared toward writing instead of stupid, obscure journal articles. You’ve done a great job here getting us started and me motivated to write this weekend. Thanks again and cheers!

    • I’ve read a lot of those obscure journal articles. Wrote a few on the prospects of discovering extra dimensions at the LHC, too. Journal articles are definitely a different brand of writing. Seeing their mention in the same paragraph as creative writing was an interesting surprise. 🙂

      I hadn’t thought of typing out a favorite story. That’s a fascinating suggestion. 🙂

  3. Another thing–a game I like to play, especially in bookstores: read the back-copy and think of I can come up with a better idea as kind of a “log line” encapsulating the idea of a story that could hold up as back copy to the finished book. Also just reading a bunch of beginnings to novels helps to make sure I am aiming high enough there. Coincidentally, like most people, I think, those two things, the back copy and intro paragraphs, are what determines whether my interest converts to a purchase. Buy I’ll stop there as you do a great job talking about the marketing aspect in your last bullet. Look forward to your next post!

  4. “Periodic reading of classics can help improve writing skills.”

    This is especially useful if you’re creating an alternate history piece supposedly written in a specific decade. If you choose classics from the same period, you get a better grip on language constructions, customs, and environment.

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