Hack Your Writing By Reading

Writing and reading are two sides of the same very large and complex coin.

When you write, you think of your eventual readers (even if the only reader will be you). When you read, you place yourself in the writer’s hands. That’s why you often feel delighted if you like a piece of writing: it is as if the writer has given you a gift. Conversely, when you’re confused by something you read, you feel that the writer hasn’t taken care of you.

You can learn a lot about writing by reading with a writer’s eyes. Here are some ways you can use reading to improve your writing:

1. Read with a pen or pencil in your hand. As you begin to read with a writer’s eyes, you will probably notice all sorts of things about what you’re reading. You might notice, for example, a novel’s opening strategy. Some novels have great beginnings, while others might leave you cold. Exploring a novel as a reader-writer – an active reader – rather than a passive reader will likely spur all sorts of responses to the piece.

You may be familiar with the practice of highlighting books from your student days. When you’re reading with writer’s eyes, however, you will want to put the highlighter down. Why? Highlighting a section doesn’t tell you why that section is important. The only way to discern what was important is to read the highlighted section again. And when you do, you’re often left scratching your read: it’s easy to highlight any section that seems remotely important without much rhyme or reason.

Instead, use a pen or pencil, and record your reaction to an idea in the margins. Make notes of your thoughts and reactions as you read. Your comments may draw attention to a technique or choice the writer has made or it may be evaluative. It may even keep track of where important plot events occur. These comments are a record of what you thought while reading a given piece. Merely formulating your thought into a coherent marginal note can help your ideas develop in important ways.

If you’re reading online, or if you can’t or don’t want to write in the margins, you can use a separate document (paper or electronic). Just make sure you label or title it clearly: “Reading Notes from Fight Club, 3/4/06,” for example. Before each note you make, record the page number. That way, you’ll know that you thought of this idea while reading page 76.

2. Try imitating a favorite author. For centuries, students were taught the finer points of language and rhetoric – particularly Latin – by writing imitations of great Classical authors. And I don’t know about you, but if it worked for Shakespeare I’m game to try it.

Take a selection from a favorite author and try to imitate its style. The content will be entirely your own: you could be writing fiction or nonfiction, any genre for any purpose. But you’ll try to imitate the style of a writer you are reading. For example, Ernest Hemingway has a particular style that is distinct from, say, Don De Lillo. You could discover much about style, expression, and your own writing personality by trying to write in the style of Hemingway, (or Tom Brokaw, or The New Yorker…).

3. Keep a list of words and concepts as you read. Okay, so you are jotting notes in the margins of pieces you’re reading. That method works wonderfully to capture most reactions to a written work. But sometimes in the course of your reading you come across a wonderful word, concept, or allusion. You can underline it and make a note in the margins, but once you put the book down you probably won’t remember it.

A good solution is to keep a list of words or phrases that you want to remember. Again, you can use any mechanism you’re comfortable with, from a leather-bound journal to a word processing program. Just make sure it’s accessible, so you can add to it easily. Then when you need to kick start your mind, just peruse your list.

4. Copy one aspect of a piece you’ve read, and run with it. To use this technique, you copy an aspect of the writer’s content rather than his or her style. For example, if Stephen King’s The Shining is one of your favorite books, you might want to work with the gorgeously creepy setting of The Overlook Hotel. You would build a different narrative around the setting. Perhaps you would write a tale about some of the Overlook’s earlier guests or owners.

Although I have used a fiction example here, this technique works well with just about any type of writing. Remember, though, that you are using part of another writer’s work here. So, if you were to publish your work or show it to anyone, you would need to acknowledge the inspiration for your idea.

5. Expand Your Reading. Many of us have favorite genres and authors. This is why most times we go to a bookstore or library, we tend to end up in the same section. Having favorites is great, but it’s also beneficial to direct your writer’s eyes to a variety of reading material. If you like fiction, try a compelling biography. If you like history, try historical fiction. If you like blogs, try newspapers and magazines. Within each broad category there are many genres. You could try a mystery instead of sci-fi, for example.

To get started, ask friends or esteemed colleagues for their recommendations. And don’t forget your work life: whatever your profession, there is reading material associated with it. You could peruse the latest scholarly work in your field, or you could explore the publications of your industry’s professional or trade organization.

It’s been said that you are what you eat. If that’s true, then as a writer you are what you read. Reading is the mechanism by which we absorb influences that we then turn into writing. Whenever you’re stuck on a piece you’re writing, pick up a book. Not only will it help you ease the stress of writer’s block, it may fuel your imagination.

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