‘Reading Widely’ versus ‘Reading as a Writer’ - and why the two are different




One of the most important skills my first writing coach suggested I learn was how to ‘read as a writer’. It didn’t come easily, and it took longer than I’d expected (about two years of concentration and application, to properly understand and to use effectively). But, once I understood how to employ ‘reading as a writer’, I was able to use it to inform my own prose, which proved invaluable. Today, as a writing coach, ‘reading as a writer’ is something I suggest to all my clients. 


Reading as a writer is easy to confuse with being widely read. Clients who read voraciously are often puzzled when I suggest that they aren’t yet reading as writers. Some clients might’ve done a literature degree, maybe belong to book clubs and writers’ groups, know the prominent classics and also include lesser-known work, edgy genre blends, best-selling crime thrillers and short stories on their reading lists. Often, clients tell me that they don't watch TV in favour of sitting with a book every evening.  Some clients get through a novel every one-to-two weeks. This is all really positive, but until you tune in to what it means to read as a writer, the technical aspects of structure and prose won’t be ‘soaking in’ in the most effective way. The idea behind 'reading as a writer' is that you learn to view another writer’s prose in a way which helps you to assess how you might use or develop specific aspects in your own work.   


The simplest trick for reading as a writer involves finding part of a novel which really made its mark on you, before taking a closer look at the prose to work out how the author did it. 



Unpick a scene you admire (any scene at all, from any book), and look at the word choices the author uses. Scene painting, atmosphere, and manipulation of the reader to suggest or foreshadow what might be coming, or to provoke a particular kind of emotional response, are all things which can be governed by careful and appropriate word choices. When you unpick a scene for word choices, you’re connecting with how the author did it. The theory is, that if this scene really stirred you as a reader, then you can learn which bits to internalise and emulate in your own work, to stir other readers in turn. But, this is only the starting point. After word choices, there are other things to consider. 



Look at the era the novel was written in. If it’s a dated book in which styles were more verbose, contained more telling/exposition, longer tracts of dialogue, or longer than average sentences, it’s important to view this through the correct lens, and to understand that times have changed. No matter how much you love Shakespeare, you wouldn’t write iambic pentameter if you’re preparing a romance for mainstream publication, so it’s important to temper the things you love about dated prose with a writer’s knowledge about the current market - this, you will get from reading widely, but also by considering and internalising the sheer number of changes visible in prose of different periods and styles. 



Next, you’re ready to think about where in the novel the scene you’ve chosen actually happens. If it opened the novel, it perhaps provoked a question and was most likely punchy and dramatic (particularly in modern fiction). If, on the other hand, this scene appeared a long way into the novel, perhaps at an emotional high point, by now you’re already gripped by the characters and narration, so this passage could be longer and more lyrical. Once readers are taken over by the story, they have much more patience with the narrator’s heart being exposed on a platter with longer sentences, more self-indulgent prose, a little bit more telling as opposed to showing, and so on. In short, if you note where your favourite scene is placed in a story, you’ll be able to see how hard (or not) the author had to work to get you to accept a bit of soul baring, sadness, or joy. These are all principles you can apply to your own work. 



Now consider the genre of the work you’ve taken your favourite section of prose from. Reading as a writer includes finding out what writers have to say about their fiction and how they think it should be categorised, and reading what literary critics/journalists/book reviewers have to say about it, too. Sometimes, you can make surprising discoveries by reading author interviews, connecting with original and sophisticated genre blends, or finding that a writer you’d always thought was sci fi actually refers to their work as speculative crime fusion, for example. Authors and critics often have conflicting viewpoints; it’s amazing how differently a novelist will describe their work in comparison to a critic who is reviewing it. All these things will give you a wider awareness of genre, which will then feed into your own work when you're looking for a new and different way to do something. 



Tone can be tricky, because it isn't so easy to prescribe a clear-cut fix for tone as it is for 'show don't tell'. In terms of tone, it's quite common for a writer to discover there's a gap between their intent and the result on the page. Whether it's thinking that something is funny which perhaps won't work across the board, or portraying a character as rational when they come across as cruel or misguided, conflict in tone happens to all us writers at some point. The gap between intent and result gets less likely with experience, but it can still happen (which is why even professional novelists have editors). A client working on a first novel may not realise there’s a gap between intent and result - so it’s the writing coach or editor’s job to identify this, and to give helpful tips to guide the writer to close the gap. Tone issues can arise in humour, for example, if the writer finds it tricky to correctly identify the difference between satire, full on humour or a novel with occasionally witty bits which might actually be quite dark or grim in tone. Tone also includes understanding that setting doesn’t completely govern the feel of a novel, so a story situated in a run-down UK pit village or an ailing town in the outback isn’t automatically bleak, it could equally be light humour or dark crime thriller depending how the writer handles the material. This makes tone really tricky to explain in a one-size-fits-all way, which is why it’s so important for a coach to scratch under the skin of what an aspiring debut author is trying to achieve, so that they can advise appropriately.


Tone is important to consider when writing for younger readers, because it's what separates middle grade fiction from YA or adult fiction. Characters in children's books often find themselves in danger, but this is sometimes expressed with light-touch humour rather than true darkness. Darker themes, sexual content and harsh language are geared towards older readers. A great way an aspiring debut can check all this is out, is by reading recently mainstream published best sellers in the appropriate age group category. If you want to write middle grade fiction, immerse yourself in it so that you get a 'feel' for how it's written. This might sound obvious, but it's surprising how many clients don't realise that reading their competition matters.


Tips for assessing the tone of your favourite prose include: 


How does the author build imagery (and use word choices) to create a specific tone? 


How do these word choices extend to character, to manipulate the reader's perception of the person we're reading about? 


If your favourite extract is humour, is it social satire, is it grimly funny, is it laugh aloud slapstick or farce? How might you relate this to what you want to achieve in your own MS?


How does the author use the physical setting to convey or reinforce a certain tone throughout the story? How might you adopt the same approach in your own work?


TWO NOVELISTS ON GENRE - when journalists and authors disagree

The late novelist Anne McCaffrey regularly had her dragon novels reviewed as fantasy. Anne would crossly point out that she actually wrote science fiction, because the dragons of Pern were genetically engineered in a lab on another planet before the story began, specifically to fight the moon parasite Thread, which ate its way through everything when it fell to earth. Anne noted with considerable delight that her critics couldn’t say much in response to her statement. Another fascinating commentator on all things fiction was the late novelist Ursula Le Guin, who couldn’t stand to have her books pigeonholed as this or that. ‘Left to me, I would just call them novels’, she once said.


Le Guin regularly lamented that a whole new bunch of fantasy writers had turned their ‘characters to dolls’, and previously powerful fantasy tropes to ‘meaningless platitudes’. If I was setting out as an aspiring fantasy writer today, then I’d want to make sure my fiction wasn’t something a highly decorated writer like Le Guin would consider shallow and pointless. The only way to do this would be to make sure I had read around the genre well enough to see for myself who was strong and who was a copy-cat or a watered-down exponent of the fantasy echelon. I’d also be sure to read dated fantasy, but to internalise that this isn’t a great influence for modern fantasy due to too much exposition, lack of decent female characters, and excessive world building. Plus, I’d engage with the ongoing debate on male and female characters in fantasy fiction, to ensure that I courted the 60% of all book-buyers and readers who surveys tell us are women. This is where reading widely comes into play, but reading as a writer only works when you apply what you’ve read in a reflective manner, sometimes challenging received wisdom, always exploring reviews and critical opinion, and basically having a long think about everything you’ve read and researched. 


Writing well takes more than just reading lots - as writers, we need to get inside the prose and explore the mechanics of what makes it successful. The great news is, once you have it, 'reading as a writer' is a skill you’ll never lose.


Useful links for more information on 'reading as a writer':


The Good Story Company's ‘Reading Like A Writer’;

David Lodge's The Art of Fiction;

Anne Kroeker's article, ‘How Do You Read Like a Writer’?

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer.

August 4th 2021

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