Reading is reading, right? We learn to read when we’re little and, once we’ve got the hang of it, it’s pretty much a skill ticked off the list of skills we learn over the course of our education. Occasionally, we might come across an unknown word and have to sound it out phonetically or look it up in the dictionary if we can’t guess its meaning from the context of the other words around it. But mostly, learning to read is something that is in the past. It shouldn’t concern us grown-up writers of flash fiction, short stories and novels who have progressed to the much trickier skill of stringing words into sentences and paragraphs.
On the surface level, reading is just about deciphering the symbols we use in that writing process. We see the letters C, A and T and we sound ‘cat’ inside our heads. We take the meaning of a sentence and we digest it; we retain certain bits of information, jettison others; we skip from one sentence to the next, pause, speed forwards; we re-read, react, remember. Reading is something that we have done for so long by the time we’re grown-ups that we don’t need to think about how to read, we just approach a sentence and dive right in.
But that is oversimplifying. Reading is not just the skill of seeing the words on the page and turning them into meaning inside our head. It is also the skill of analysing, of picking things apart at a macro or micro level. We are all of us expert readers but that doesn’t mean we don’t have more to learn. As writers, we can take so much from reading the work of others. I am always wary of any advice that says you ‘need’ to do ‘something’ in order to achieve ‘something else’ but I think the general idea that reading is helpful to becoming a better writer is one that I would be happy to stick my neck out over. In my previous blog post, I talked a little about how we can read in certain ways to improve our writing and I thought I’d take the chance to delve into that a little further.
Reading for pleasure
I would guess that most writers arrive at writing from a love of reading. For me, reading provides an escape from the world; it has always been something I’ve enjoyed doing. When I was at school, I took English Literature at A Level because of my love of reading and I loved the texts that we read as part of the course. However, when we started analysing them over and over and over and over, my love of them diminished because instead of simply enjoying them for what they were, I’d been forced to overread them and overanalyse them. So, I suppose this is a word of caution to begin with. Reading to improve as a writer is a useful thing to do but hopefully we can do it in a way that doesn’t mean we stop being able to read for pleasure.
Reading for story
If I was really pushed from my default impostor-syndrome position, I would probably say that I’m a good writer but I’m not the greatest story-teller. I can do the whole stringing words together thing but finding new stories or approaching well-trodden paths from new angles is something I find much more difficult. So, this is something I need to do more of – not just reading a story and going, ‘Wow, that was great!’ but looking at the story with a more analytic hat upon my head and working out what it was about the story that made me say that. A story, of course, is not just a story – it is multiple elements working together side by side and, in analysing a story, we need to be aware of that:
1. Plot. What is it that happens in the story? What is the narrative arc from a to b? Is there a back story in there? One thing that I find really useful when analysing the plot of a piece of writing is to write a one-sentence synopsis of what actually happens. For example, ‘Having been visited by three ghosts, Ebenezer Scrooge gains a new perspective of life and embraces the joy of Christmas.’ From there, you can branch out into the who, what, where, how, when of it.
2. Structure. When I’m providing feedback for other writers, I often include a structural map of their story. This might look something like this:
General introduction to Mr Bump (approx. 80 words)
Backstory about Mr Bump and the ladder (approx. 100 words)
Mr Bump working on the farm and other work-related incidents (approx. 160 words)
Mr Bump takes a holiday (approx. 130 words)
Mr Bump has an idea and starts working in the orchard (approx. 120 words)
Doing so can give a good idea of a story’s general shape, the balance between present-moment storytelling and backstory, how much space on the page is dedicated to the core plot and how much is dedicated to side stories or description; you might look at a story thematically or in terms of emotional shifts, which characters are on-scene and how long they are there for.
3. Characters. How many are there? In how much depth is each character described? What is the naming convention in the story? What is it about the characters that makes them well-rounded and unique? When I come across a story where the characters seem completely real, I like to reverse engineer what I do myself when creating characters from scratch – I go through the story and make a list of everything I can find out about them – name, age, description, job, relationships, hobbies, hopes, fears etc. What is concretely stated on the page? What is there only through implication? Another useful exercise is looking at body language – how do these characters react to the world around them?
4. Emotional pull. For me, a great story needs to have an emotional backbone to it, something that compels me to read from beginning to end. The best stories, in my eyes, take a reader through different emotions and I think it can be a useful exercise to print out a story you love and attack it with different colour highlighter pens. Highlight all the moments of humour in yellow, the moments of sadness in green, the moments of anger in red etc. If you want to go to the next level, you might add a gradient to your highlighting - morse-code dots where the emotion is only very light, dashes where it gets stronger and then a continuous line of highlighting where the emotion is at its highest.
Reading for technique
This, if we’re not careful, is where we can start moving towards the ruining-pieces-we-love-by-overanalysing-them danger zone. Going microscopic and focusing on the word / sentence level of someone else’s writing can make it feel mechanistic, can take away the emotional pull that made us fall in love with the story in the first place. So, we need to tread a little carefully perhaps and not stare at it too long (perhaps think of it like staring at the sun!) – but I think there is so much we can improve about our own writing by looking at the specifics of how others write.
1. Getting a feel for the contours of someone else’s writing. It can be tricky to work out exactly what it is that works for us at a word / sentence level – often it is a combination of things; often those things are quite subtle. But an easy starting point is to take a piece of writing that you love and copy it out by hand. Think about how the words and sentences feel as you write them, say them aloud, let them roll around your mouth. Another thing that I find to be a really useful exercise is to take a fragment of writing and to continue it from that point forwards or to take three or four unconnected sentences from a paragraph and invent what comes in between like a dot-to-dot puzzle.
2. Sentence construction. When I’m editing work for other writers, the one thing that crops up more often that anything else is repetitive sentence structures. In The Art of Styling Sentences (Longknife and Sullivan), it is suggested that there are twenty basic sentence patterns that a writer can use. Great writers tend to use the whole range of these patterns. Try counting the number of words in each sentence – are some short, some long, some somewhere in between? How are the sentences constructed? Do they use run-on sentences, introductory phrases, sentence fragments, lists, compound sentences? How does one sentence flow from the one before in terms of ideas, in terms of rhythm?
3. Specific techniques. Does the writer use alliteration, anaphora, hypothetical questions, juxtaposition, onomatopoeia, pathos etc.? What effect do these techniques have? Where are they used within the story?
4. Description. Look for sensory details – can you spot sight, sound, taste, smell, touch? How is place described? How about people? As an exercise here, try taking a paragraph of description from a story you love and changing one word at a time so that it becomes a description of wherever you are now.
5. Imagery. Look for the word ‘like’ – how many similes are there in the story? Are the similes original – how many hits would you get if you typed the simile into Google? How about metaphors and other imagery? Is imagery sparse or peppered throughout? Is there a theme that connects the imagery to the story? Do they feel specific to the narrator / the protagonist?
6. Dialogue. What is the balance of speech and action in the story? Where there is dialogue, is it in long blocks or short splashes? How many dialogue tags are used? Does the writer use speech marks? If not, what is the effect of this to you as a reader? Does the writer use reported speech or is everything directly in dialogue? An exercise you might use here is to invent a new dialogue between two characters from a story, concentrating on mimicking the style and tone of voice from the original.
What to read
Hopefully, the above gives some ideas of what to look for when you want to delve below the surface of simply reading for pleasure. But how do we go about finding those pieces that we love? When it comes to flash fiction and short stories, I often worry that Twitter (other social media is available) has a slightly distorting effect on what pieces end up getting read. We read the stories by our Twitter friends because that is a nice thing to do. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with that approach wholeheartedly but I worry that it has a narrowing effect on the writing we end up reading. While we’re still in the improving as writers stage (and we should aim to always be improving as writers, in my opinion), I feel we should try and read as widely as possible, to subject ourselves to as many different voices as we can. So, a couple of challenges to end with:
1. Pick a literary journal that publishes on a regular basis (something between one piece a day and one piece a week) and read every single story that they publish over the next couple of months whether you are familiar with the writer or not. When you find a new writer that you love, perhaps have a search to see if you can find their other pieces?
2. Pick a literary journal that publishes work that is outside of your comfort zone – perhaps, science fiction or fantasy or poetry – and read through their archives, asking yourself if there is anything you can take from those other genres that you might infuse into your own writing.
If you enjoy reading this blog then why not sign up to my newsletter so you get it sent straight to your inbox?