Some of the most common advice I’ve heard to a new writer is read more to write better. I’ve heard this a lot lately, and those touting the advice quote none other than J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. So it has to be good advice, right?
I can’t decide if the people telling this to authors are:
- Telling us what we want to hear. Most writers love to read.
- Using it as an attempt to sell us more books.
- Genuinely misunderstand how humans learn.
This is pretty dense, but it’ll tell you that to learn, you need to engage the brain. If you tell the brain what it already knows, learning doesn’t occur.
Think about your morning commute. Ever arrive at work uncertain how, exactly, you got there? Happens to me more than I want to admit.
Just reading is similar to this. You read the book. You finish the book. You either like it or don’t, and then move on to the next book. Kind of like your morning commute.
What’s missing from the advice of “read more” is the critical element of analyzing what you’re reading. Even if you’re not in a formal book club, you can still ask questions of yourself:
- Why did you like the book?
- What didn’t you like about it? Why?
- Would you read it again? Why or why not?
After you have the answers to these questions, dig deeper.
How do authors engage your senses to make you feel like you’re riding along with the characters? How do they connect you so you care what happens?
I normally love to read romance novels, and I write them, but lately, I’ve had a bad run of them. Characters I hate, situations I find contrived at best, love stories that are a study in lust. But, they have taught me a lot. And not just because I’ve read them.
I may not even finish a book, but I can learn a lot if I take the time to figure out why I didn’t finish. Were the characters not compelling? Was the situation so contrived that my eyes got stuck when I rolled them?
I want the happily-ever-after ending, but I want the characters to earn it. I’ve learned this about myself, and I try hard to put it into my writing. I also want the love story to be believable. I need the characters to earn that, too.
But learning how to do this takes more than reading. It takes the time, patience, and brain engagement to really analyze what I’m reading. I can learn a lot from the bad as well as the good, but I still have to take the time to think.
How about you? Do you find reading improves your writing? Do you stop and think about why you love or hate a book? What makes you love a story? Hate it?