Friday, January 8, 2016

9 Ways to Use Reading to Improve Your Writing


We are a rare breed. We spend hours by ourselves. We visit new worlds and times on a regular basis. Our favorite people constantly die before our eyes. We are collectors and protectors of both the history and the future.

Who are we?

No, not Time Lords. Bookworms!

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you have an affinity for reading. Most writer’s do. I touched briefly on the idea of how reading can help writing in my newsletter, but I’d like to expand on that a bit more today. 
It’s odd to think that we learn to write by reading books that were written by other people, people who honed their talent by reading another’s work. Writing is an endless loop of ideas, writing styles, and people’s lives. It’s quite beautiful, if you ever stop to think about it.

Anyway, here are 9 ways you can use reading to improve your writing:
  1. Use books as tools to write. It’s a writer’s job to describe places we’ve never been, write about people we aren’t, and expose points of view that people have long forgotten. How are we supposed to do this well? Through reading. Reading not only feeds us new ideas, but it explains to us people and places that we would have never been able to understand. Bookshelves are like a writer’s toolbox. Dig around enough and you’ll find a way to approach that one character, write about that certain topic, or fill up that plot hole. No, this isn’t stealing, something that I’ve explained here.
  2. Don’t just read in the genre that you write. This is a brilliant way to turn out cliché, shallow stories. While there’s nothing wrong with reading in your genre, there is something wrong with reading exclusively in that genre. If you’re going to read, then read. Read classics, historical fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, sci-fi, graphic novels, manga. By doing this, you will be broadening your scope, allowing yourself to write in ways different than many authors in your genre. Besides, most genres have the same themes and ideas, just expressed in a different way. Sometimes seeing this new way will give you the kick you need in your own writing.
  3. Read thoughtfully. Study the story. Delve into the characters. Don’t just read a book and think, “That was good” or “That was bad.” Do NOT like or dislike a book simply because everyone else does. Identify the specific parts that made the story good or bad. Ask yourself how you would have done it differently. Learn from other authors. Books are more than entertainment, so treat them as such. Learn from them. Not only will this better your writing, but it will sharpen your intellect and feed your soul.
  4. Read thoughtlessly. I know, I know. I just said to read thoughtfully. However, sometimes it’s helpful to simply read a book for the enjoyment of it. Don’t ask yourself why it makes you feel the way you do. Don’t try to understand it. Just read. Then, when you are done, go back and think very hard about the book. Search for problems, plot holes, the good parts, the bad parts. Notice how your perception of the book changes. Notice what parts of books often seem good, but end up being shallow upon close scrutiny. This will keep you from writing a story that contains mostly fluff and nonsense.
  5. Read brilliant books. Go out of your way to read books that you know to be brilliant. While it’s never a good idea to compare yourself to another writer, it’s always helpful to have writers to look up to and learn from.
  6. Read lame books. If a book is badly done, don’t just throw it out. Sometimes bad books can be helpful. Not only does it show you how not to write (which is sometimes more helpful than learning how to write), but it can give you some hope. I mean, if junk like that can get published, you should be able to publish your own stuff, right? Also, you can look at those bad books and be determined to keep any of your novels from ever being that bad. So really, bad books aren’t worthless. There is grace in their failings. That being said, I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way to read sucky books.
  7. Open your mind. Open your mind to what exactly it is that makes a good story. Be ready to encounter new and strange writing techniques. Ask questions. Challenge yourself and your ideas. There are so many books, blog posts, and people telling you about what makes up good writing. Try to forget them all and make up your own mind based on the books that you read.
  8. Question everything. This is closely connected to reading thoughtfully, but I thought it should get it's own paragraph because it's so darn important. Questioning plot points and character motivation in other people's books will lead your to do the same for your own writing. In fact, it's probably best to read books like Gwen:
    As long as you can do this without being rude and cynical, that is. I'm halfway there. Just gotta get rid of the cynical side. But, let's be honest. The odds of that are about 3,720 to 1.
  9. Read books that mean something to you. At the end of the day, a book is only as good, as truthful, and as wise as its author. If you want to write a book with meaning, then you’re going to have to find a way to make your own life meaningful. Do you have questions about the problem of pain? Read books about it. Fighting against depression, chronic pain, marital problems? Read. And, of course, find somebody you can talk to about the world and the questions you have. This is key. The better you can express yourself and identify your own questions, the better equipped you will be to write characters and their problems.
It’s also interesting to note that these ideas also apply to movies and music. After all, films and melodies are a style of storytelling, too. I think often times we forget the value of a story. We forget that, though they can entertain, they can also teach, create, destroy, and improve. Books really are magnificent, and it's important to remember just how magnificent they are so that we can use them correctly. 

What about you? Do you use reading to better your writing skills, or have you simply never thought of it? Did I miss any points? Please leave a comment below! 

Related articles:
Challenging Writers to Create Stories With Meaning
6 Reasons You Should Be Writing Short Stories....And 5 Tips to Help You Get Started
6 Easy Ways to Gain Writing Inspiration

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21 comments:

  1. Though, you know, Time Lord would work too...

    These are all great tips. Back in middle school I remember so many girls writing little stories or trying to start a book and I would try to start a conversation about books with them, because I figured we would be cut from the same cloth. It always surprised me when they said they didn't read.

    I'm one that's prone to reading only one genre, but I'm trying to branch out this year. I have a lot of sic fi books to read because my current project is sic fi, but I'm not reading as much YA, even though my book is YA. I want to reach for fresh ideas, out of that genre.

    It can be hard because now my writerly brain kicks into overdrive every time I'm consuming a story. Doesn't matter if it's book, tv, movie, manga. It's a blessing and a curse because I learn things, but I'm also super critical.

    Thanks for the great post. Oh, and I linked to you in the last post on my blog. Thought you might want to know. Here is the link if you're interested: http://katierebekahlynn.wix.com/katherinerebekah#!YA-Clichés-Characters/cd23/568fdaca0cf291395320ebc9

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    1. Great comments, Katherine! I always feel so confused when I meet a self-proclaimed writer who doesn't like to read.
      Glad to hear that you're branching out in your reading! If you're looking for some good reads in other genres, feel free to get in touch. I have lists upon lists. =) I too struggle with being overly critical due to being a writer, so I feel your pain. =)
      Ah! Manga! What are some of your favorites? I just recently started reading manga, so I'd love any suggestions you have. =) Thanks!
      Thank you so much for the link over to my blog! I really appreciate it. Your post is brilliant. Happy writng!

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    2. Yes, I would love some suggestions! How can I get in touch? I've tried looking for a contact form but couldn't find one.

      Currently I'm reading Soul Eater and Attack on Titan. Both are great but Attack on Titan is on the violent side, so not for the squeamish. I'm fairly new to the manga world as well, so those are the only ones I've read. I'm really wanting to get my hands on Fullmetal Alchemist. I can attest that the corresponding anime for each of those suggestions is awesome as well. What are you reading?

      Of course! I really enjoyed that post and learned a lot from it so I thought I'd spread the love.

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    3. Sweet! I've been hearing a lot of good things about Attack on Titan, so I'll have to look into it. Thanks for the heads up on the violence. I'm currently reading Pandora Hearts. It's amazing. You should check it out. I'd love to speak with you further! You can contact me through my website here: http://hannahheathwriter.com/contact/
      Now I'm off to go watch Fullmetal Alchemist. I've never tried anime before, so this should be fun. =) Thanks!

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    4. Awesome! Have fun. But I'll let you know I'm actually watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. They say that you should watch the original first because they have different stories, Brotherhood following the manga and the first going off on its own. So you're doing it right! You'll be hearing from me via the contact form soon!

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    5. Sweet! I've been hearing a lot of good things about Attack on Titan, so I'll have to look into it. Thanks for the heads up on the violence. I'm currently reading Pandora Hearts. It's amazing. You should check it out. I'd love to speak with you further! You can contact me through my website here: http://hannahheathwriter.com/contact/
      Now I'm off to go watch Fullmetal Alchemist. I've never tried anime before, so this should be fun. =) Thanks!

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  2. Reading and writing both inform each other. When I read I get excited to write my own stories and see what I can do to make them better, or better express my characters' quests. Great tips!

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    1. Exactly! I just finished a great book, and am so excited to get back to writing my own. Love when that happens. =)

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  3. Of course. As Faulkner said: “Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.” And that is that. GREAT article, Hannah :)

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    1. I love that quote! I stumbled across it a few years back and it helped propel me into reading genres and books that I would never have considered before. =) Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  4. I agree so much with 2, 3, and 4! You need to have a broad perspective to write richly, in my opinion, and reading just one genre will limit your potential there. Also, I love how you put that: read thoughtfully, and read thoughtlessly. We need to study books, but we shouldn't study them SO hard that we're not able to experience them on a visceral, entertainment level. That is where some of the best inspiration comes from!

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    1. Exactly! Ideas come from "unstudy" just as much as they do from studying. =)

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  5. I completely agree... reading is so helpful to writing. And your #2 is so important! I think you said that perfectly. If you never get outside a single genre your writing will suffer tremendously.

    One summer I wanted to get outside my norm, and expand my reading horizons so I asked all my friends what their favorite book was and that was all I let myself read. It was so eclectic. From Amish romance, to Star Wars... it was great.

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    1. That is such a neat reading plan! I'm going to have to try that sometime. Thank you for the awesome idea!

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  6. Very well said. Your first point reminded me of Washington Irving's "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon" where he expresses the same thoughts in the section "The Art of Book-making". You're in very good company.

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    1. How neat! I hadn't even made that connection. Thank you!

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  7. I think your nine points are all well stated. I would only add to take time to refect on your own experiences so that your writing could also draw on the things you see and hear and touch and feel. In other words, live your own life so you are not necessarily writing about what you have read.

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    1. Great advice! Books are wonderful, but you should never try to substitute them for real life. Thanks for the comment!

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  8. Don't read manga/watch anime. That's pointless. Go read a classix.

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    1. I think they both have benefits. I read a lot of classics because they are thought-provoking, well-written, and just overall good. But manga is great, too, because it allows me to view plot and character in ways that I wouldn't normally: it helps me study dialogue, gestures, and facial expressions. It's impossible to compare classic with manga: They're both so different that reading them both (rather than just one or the other) works to enrich and stretch my mind.

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  9. Everytime I read your blog I spot some sort of reference! Marvel, Star Wars, How to train your Dragon etc. I love it!

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