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  • Writer's pictureChristina Crosland

How to Practice Writing by Reading

If you want to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader.

Photo Credit: Hümâ H. Yardım | Unsplash

In our email newsletters, Ever Editing has a section titled, “Practice Writing by Reading.” (Which, if you aren’t on our mailing list yet, why not? Sign up for more writing tips.)


So what does “practice writing by reading” mean, exactly? Let me explain.


First of all, published authors have always started out as readers. Any writer can relate to discovering a love for reading that led to crafting a story of his or her own. Only by reading (or hearing) stories do writers learn how to create them.


The same principle applies to every aspect of writing—by studying a well-organized self-help book, we can learn how to create effective topics and headers. By becoming immersed in a romance novel, we can see how to capture an audience with passion. By reading well-researched historical fiction, we can learn how proper research adds depth to a setting.


On the other hand, we can also glean information from not-so-well-crafted books. When reading a plot full of holes, we can learn how to analyze our own plot. When disinterested by a main character, we see what does not create an engaging character arc. When studying a dry biography, we learn that reciting facts won’t catch a reader’s attention.


Although we can pick up on good writing while reading for fun, our own writing skills are best developed when we make a point to turn on our writer brains and actively examine the content we read. That’s where practicing writing by reading comes in. Here are a few ways we can consciously turn our reading sessions into writing practice.


 

1. Highlight a specific writing tool.


There are many writing tool, such as character arcs, points of view, tropes, narration, imagery, and more. You can choose one or two writing tools like these that you want to try in your own writing, and then, look for those tools throughout the book you are reading. Are they used effectively? Or do they fall flat? Highlight examples of your chosen writing tool so you can look back on them while implementing the tool in your own writing. For an even more effective study, include a writing exercise unrelated to your work-in-progress in which you apply the tools you just analyzed.


Here’s an example of how to focus on the writing tool “perspective” while reading The Submission by Amy Waldman:


Book cover of "The Submission" by Amy Waldman

The Submission takes multiple perspectives to a new level. It examines a country full of people with distinct viewpoints. The issues raised in this fictional rendering are addressed from every angle—women, men, politicians, news reporters, and differing religious sects.


While reading, focus on the writing tool “perspective.” Observe how Waldman gets into the heads of many unique and often opposing points of view. Then, practice yourself by writing the same short story twice, each time from characters that have opposite perspectives. Finally, explore the character mindsets in your own book.


 

2. Focus on one character’s development.


Character development can make or break a book. If a main character shows little to no development, the book will fall flat. Even side characters need to be carefully thought out to keep readers from questioning why that character is in the book at all.


In order to learn the ins and outs of creating intriguing characters, pick up a book and study everything about one particular character. Focus on a character with the same role as one in your own book. For example, if you need to develop a believable backstory for your villain, note how the author developed the villain in the book you are reading. They could be developed through changed perspectives, flashbacks, dialogue, etc. If you want to create a relevant side character, try compiling a document on the book’s side characters and how they progress the plot.


If there is one particular character that really connects with you, write down everything about that character that draws you to them. Is it their backstory? Or maybe the humanness of their actions? What character qualities do they possess, both good and bad?


If you find that a character is not connecting with you, use that as an opportunity to examine why. Is it because the character lacks depth? Are their actions too cliché? Do they have a believable backstory? Making a list of what you find lacking in that character will give you a good guide to ensure your own characters don’t have the same pitfalls—-or do for a specific purpose.


As an example of this exercise, a round main character can be found in Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.


Book cover of the novel "Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman with review by Reese Witherspoon: "Beautifully written and incredibly funny

This novel shows strong character development. In the beginning of the book, Eleanor is portrayed as stand-offish, judgmental, and socially backward. Throughout the story, readers experience Eleanor’s growth in two ways: 1) Eleanor learns to be less judgmental as she allows herself to connect with other human beings, and 2) Readers grow less judgmental of Eleanor as they discover her heart-wrenching history. By the end of the story, Eleanor transforms from highly unlikable to loved and adored.


While reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, focus on the writing tool “character development.” Take notes on how Honeyman navigates Eleanor’s internal growth while deepening the reader’s connection to her character. Then, use your notes to practice writing a short story about a character nobody likes and developing him or her into someone readers connect with.


 

3. Examine why a book did or did not work.


Did you just finish one of the best books you have ever read? Or did you find yourself reading nonstop despite not liking a character? Or, maybe you just couldn’t finish the book because it was not your cup of tea? All three of these situations are wonderful opportunities to practice writing by reading.


If you have just read the best book ever, come up with five elements that made the book stand out to you and why (that “and why” is important!). Then, see if you have those same qualities in your own book.


If you found yourself reading a book nonstop even though you didn’t like certain aspects, examine what kept you reading through the disgruntlement. If you can pin that down, you know that similar techniques will benefit your own writing. (Make sure to also pin down what bothered you and avoid that in your manuscript too.)


And finally, if you just couldn’t keep reading, determine at exactly what point you lost interest and why. Look at other reviews of the book and see if they agree. If the negative consensus is similar across the board, it likely had to do with a reader expectation that was not fulfilled. What were readers expecting that they didn’t get? Does your book fulfill reader expectations?


An astounding nonfiction example to pull five good elements from is Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.


Book cover of "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption" by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling author of "Seabiscuit". Cover has a picture of open sea with a fighter plane in the sky

One element that stands out is the expertly incorporated research with dramatic storytelling. The author provides historical context while heightening reader suspense. She seamlessly switches between revealing little-known facts about the war and continuing the biographical story of Louis Zamperini.


If you want to weave historical facts in an attention-grabbing way, look at the types of facts that Hillenbrand uses, their placement in her storytelling, and the impact they have on the narrative. Then, research the time period or location in which you are writing and make a list of interesting facts that you might include in your own story.


 

There are many additional writing tools you can focus on when taking a deep dive into your book of choice. Remember, the best writing teachers are the authors that came before, and you have access to the works of every single one of them! The three examples in this writing tip, though they barely scratch the surface, give an idea of what you can look for and study while you practice writing by reading. Make sure to get creative with your personal reading “assignments” and keep it fun while you incorporate what you learn into your own writing.

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