The Skill List Project: Reading Judiciously

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, we talked about Reading Voraciously. This time around, we’ll look at reading judiciously: the skill of reading in order to learn from other writers.

Reading Like a Writer

In an essay in About Writing, Samuel R. Delany offers a list of observations containing the following (p. 127):

5. It is almost impossible to write a novel any better than the best novel you’ve read in the three to six months before you began writing your own. Thus you must read excellent novels regularly.

6. Excellent novels set the standards for our own. But bad novels and bad prose are what teach us to write—by setting strong negative examples. You must read both, then—and read them analytically and discriminatingly.

As writers, we have to develop the skill of reading with doublethink—reading for enjoyment, but also reading in order to dissect, learn, and occasionally steal. We have to do both simultaneously: if we just enjoy, we miss the chance of figuring out how the writer provides the enjoyment; if we just dissect, we become one of those irritating people who watches magic tricks solely to solve how the trick is done, thereby missing the magic. Such people may succeed in extracting formulas and techniques, but they blind themselves to the art…and the heart.

Paying Attention

So how do you learn to read like a writer? For me, it’s a matter of paying attention to the actual words on the page, not just the ideas and images that the words convey. For example, get a book that you think is particularly good and look at the opening page. What’s so good about it? What does the author do that grabs you? What are the exact words that create mood, establish setting, introduce characters, and whatever else the author is doing? Why do these particular words work? Are the sentences short or long? Is the vocabulary complex or simple?

Read the passage several times. What stands out? What grabs your attention? What resonates? What flows?

When we’re reading purely for enjoyment, we tend to zoom along without awareness of word choice, sentence construction, and paragraphing. We also zoom past important structural details like chapter breaks, sections within chapters, and authorial insertions. (I use the term “authorial insertion” for any inserted tidbit that’s outside the actual narrative. For example, chapter titles are insertions—real life doesn’t come with headings. Some books also put the date/time at the beginning of each chapter, or the name of the viewpoint character. Insertions may also include quotations or other interpolated material placed at the start of chapters and/or sections.)

To read like a writer, you have to ask, “What is the author doing here…and how does it affect the reading experience?” In a story that works, how does the author make it work? And in a story that doesn’t work, what does the author do wrong?

As Delany noted, reading bad prose can be especially illuminating. Get a book you didn’t enjoy and read a few pages several times. What’s wrong with the writing? Are there words that stand out as inappropriate? Is the flow confusing? Does the rhythm of the prose trip over itself? Is something wrong with the plot or the action? Do the characters seem unbelievable…and why? (And why does it matter? Lots of effective writing contains unbelievable characters. You’ll never meet someone as smart as Sherlock Holmes, as evil as Hannibal Lecter, as ultra-competent as Batman—but we can still have a ball reading about them. Why do such characters work despite, or because of, their unbelievability?)

By reading bad books, we learn what fails and what we have to avoid. By reading good books, we learn how high we ought to set the bar. Both sides of the coin can inspire us. We yearn to be as good as the best; we look at the worst and say (in Spider Robinson’s immortal words), “By Jesus, I can write better than this turnip.”

But How Do You Actually DO It?

How do you dissect a passage of prose and learn from it? At the risk of falling flat on my face, next time I intend to take a sample of writing—preferably something out of copyright—and I’ll try to show how I would read it to learn something about writing. If anyone can think of a passage I should look at, by all means suggest it in the comments.

In the meantime, if you have helpful stories about learning from good or bad writing, please share them with us in the comment section. (Every writer in the world needs inspiration!)

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  1. 1. Mary

    There’s nothing like revising your own work to give you an eye for things in other people’s.

    Be duely warned: You will never go back. Once you start reading for writing, you will never be able to read purely for pleasure again.

  2. 2. Bree

    This is a challenge for me. I tend to get sucked into the narrative when the writing is really good, only popping up for air ten pages later with the guilty thought that I was supposed to be looking for something.

    I’ve developed a few tricks that (somewhat) work for me. I’ve found that it is a matter of 1) having something specific that I’m reading for, and 2) keeping it short…the longer the passage, the more likely I am to get lost in the book.

  3. 3. Joyce Elferdink

    Since I am one of those people who find my best friends and greatest adventures in reading—novels especially—it is challenging to discern what causes words to transform me into a participant in a story and not just a bystander. The challenge is extricating ourselves from living in the story long enough to observe WHY and HOW we got there. In Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” I joined the other characters in a desperate search for clues leading to the location of the lost word; now I have to figure out how I got inside those pages…

    One how to book suggestion I noted in Brown’s work is the use of beats to keep the characters connected to the scene and readers connected to the characters. Here’s a beat written by Dan Brown: After ending a phone conversation…“Nola rubbed her eyes and looked blearily back at her computer screens. She had not slept in over thirty-six hours, and she knew damn well she would not sleep again until this crisis had reached its conclusion.” (“The Lost Symbol, p. 200) This sentence was not written as dialogue; it tells the readers what’s going on with Nola, the character in the scene, and makes her seem more real because as readers we can identify with her sleeplessness. The bit of action also creates an interruption to the dialogue and in this case, allows a smooth transition to a new scene. As in our daily interactions, body language often tells us the truth more clearly than a truck load of words. That little bit of action, if described uniquely, can do the same for our characters.

    Beats are one strategy we could be searching for in our reading—until we get so immersed in the story that we can no longer be seekers.

  4. 4. Domini

    @ Mary – I do a pretty good job of flipping back and forth between reading for pleasure, and reading analytically. I honestly don’t think a book has ever been “ruined” for me because I looked at it too analytically. Some people can’t, but I’ve found learning how to be analytical about writing merely allows me to voice with clarity why a particular book didn’t work for me, instead of just fumbling around in the dark. I just don’t run the two different mind-modes in parallel, and I’m careful not to run the analytical mind-mode until I’ve read the book at least once for pleasure. (The pleasure reading feeds back into the analysis anyhow…if I get a “good feeling” when you read it for pleasure, that’s a marker to use for later, so I can go back and figure out why. Likewise, I do the same if I’m disgruntled with something in the story. I go back and figure out why it fell over.)

    More on topic…Juliette Wade has been running a blog series that give some color-coded examples of deconstructing 500 word excerpts of fiction, with a focus on worldbuilding and word-choice. . It’s been very interesting to read. (Full disclosure; I did have 500 words of mine om-nom-nom’d by her. But reading the other examples is illuminating as well.)

  5. 5. Daniel S

    This seems like a weird question, but what awful books would you recommend?

  6. 6. Skott Klebe

    On the topic of awful books worth investigating – early Ludlum. The prose is almost preliterate (no idea what a verb is. Or a subject. Whether a sentence should include. Either!) but at a chapter level, there’s terrific story telling. Easily distracted by pretty prose? Won’t have that problem here!
    If you can make it through the first couple of verb-less paragraphs (always set in the rain or next to a body of water, oddly enough) you will run the risk of having to finish the book.

    _Bourne Supremacy_ was the first one I read, and couldn’t stop, even though I was occasionally laughing at the writing. Just don’t expect it to have much to do with the movie.


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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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