reading, writing technique

Reading Matters

One piece of advice often given to writers is to read. It might seem obvious: you can’t learn to write unless you’ve been exposed to many, many examples of other people’s writing. But looking closer it isn’t very clear how this works, and there aren’t many activities where the same advice applies. Teaching perhaps: if you want to teach it helps to observe other teachers. But you won’t learn to play the piano by listening to Chopin, nor learn to drive by sitting in a car with Lewis Hamilton.

I think there are two ways the reading-writing relationship can operate, explicit and implicit. In my student days we used to engage in literary analysis, dissecting a text to see how such and such an effect was achieved. A writer could then consciously apply a similar technique to their own writing. But such deliberate imitation will surely be sterile. I went through a Kerouac phase in my youth, but his influence was more on my outlook than on my writing; the only time I tried to imitate the breathlessness of his style, the result was rubbish. Or rather, it might have been fine if Kerouac hadn’t already done it, but to a reader it would come across only as what it was: imitation. Writing is all about finding your own voice.

Which is where the implicit learning comes in, the cumulative effect of the millions of sentences we’ve read. Here we pick up not just the obvious points of vocabulary and syntax, but the more subtle matter of style. But every writer’s style is different so what is the result of reading 100 different writers? Is our writing then a mishmash of them all? More likely, we’ll be receptive to the style of writers we enjoy, the others having only a minimal effect. But if, out of those 100 writers, there are 20 we enjoy, we still have to find a style of our own, so how does reading those 20 writers help us?

The question could be, and often is, put another way: who are the writers that have influenced you? Here again, I think there are two ways of looking at it. There are writers who have revealed to me the many forms a novel can take, extended the boundaries of what I saw as possible. Virginia Woolf, for example, showed me how a character’s inner life can be portrayed; Gabriel Garcia Márquez showed me that reality can be bent in different ways according to our purpose. These are general lessons that stay with us all our lives, to be tapped into at will. But there’s also the more transient influence of the books we read while we’re working on our own. Some writers, I know, don’t read while they’re writing, precisely in order to escape that influence. And I can understand that – we don’t want the call of another’s voice to deflect the one we’ve been honing for so long. And it’s insidious. I recently read Bleak House, thinking that I couldn’t be influenced by such outmoded prose, but 700 pages of Dickens gets into your mind and I found my sentences becoming a little bit more elaborate, more ornate. So there’s a lot to be said for not reading at all while writing, or at most reading non-fiction. But I find it hard to back off completely, and now I trust my own judgement to tell me if I’m straying too far in one direction or another.

For example, I’ve just finished Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which, with its scrupulously detailed dissection of the central character’s emotions, is far removed from what I’m writing myself. But it so happens that I’d chosen anyway to grant more prominence to my own character’s state of mind, and I’m ready to be receptive to the ways it can be done. What’s important is to be vigilant, rein back if I’ve gone too far, not lose sight of the overall blend of character and plot. I have no doubt that in the revision process, I’ll need to delete or attenuate certain passages, because after all, it’s a mystery novel, not an exploration of a person’s character. But there’s no reason why a mystery novel can’t do that as well – it’s simply a matter of how the two are dosed.

Perfecting our own unique voice, developing it to accommodate the overall purpose of our novel, all the while drawing upon what we read – writing is decidedly a complex and mysterious affair .

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12 thoughts on “Reading Matters

  1. Perry Palin says:

    The writers who have influenced me the most are Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John McPhee, William Wantling, Richard Traver, and Andy Borowitz. But I have been influenced more by my father and my uncles and neighbors and school classmates. None of them to my knowledge ever wrote anything down, but they were storytellers and humorists, and living with them and listening to them was great training in language, timing, detail and suspense.

    I think reading aloud is important in developing voice. I lost my best listener ten years ago, Molly, a lab/spaniel cross, who didn’t have a large vocabulary but had an ear for sound and rhythm. I would read my drafts aloud, and when she would roll her eyes and walk out of the room, I would revise and read again. When Molly stayed through the end of the story I knew it sounded right.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Fascinating topic. We are definitely influenced by what we read when we write, but only to a point. Each of us has a vocabulary and grammar unique to themselves; our idiosyncratic method of expression will reflect this learning when we write. By which I mean to say: The cumulative impact of a lifetime of reading slowly accretes to the emergence of an individual style and painful, sideways-crab-walk-through-hissing-lava, incremental tentative steps toward mastery of craft . . . or not.

    I would also note (to novice writers just beginning to struggle with the craft): Art conceals art. It is not until you actually sit down to commit words to paper that you realize how skilled professional writers are in arranging dialogue, eschewing adverbs, selecting “telling details”, managing transitions, etc.

    As to what writers have influenced me? All of them–for better or for worse.

    As to my “favorite writers”–too many to mention. I’ll highlight but three whose prose is pitch-perfect, seemingly effortless, and a delight to read: Ira Levin, William Goldman, Pat Conroy.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Cumulative impact, yes. And it’s a long process before we start to feel comfortable with the voice we’ve worked towards. It starts as soon as we try to write something we assume or hope will be read by others. Back at school, I guess, in my case. I knew the teacher would read it and started to wonder how I might achieve a certain effect. Been wondering ever since.

      Liked by 5 people

  3. Carl’s right, all good writers influence me. But some stand out for their extra-curricular comments.

    Hunter S. Thompson: “As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says ‘you are nothing’, I will be a writer.”

    Norman Mailer: “He said she was beautiful because he could not make her so.”

    Harlan Ellison: “I have a very low, what Hemingway called, “bullshit threshold.” I think that was one of the great things ever said, by the way. ‘A writer needs a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.’ That’s exactly right.”

    Liked by 5 people

    • Great quotes, GD! May I share with you a couple more?

      Susan Sontag: “That’s what a writer does–a writer pays attention to the world.”

      Philip K. Dick: “I’m not much but I’m all I have.”

      Robert Silverberg: “My temperament is not inclined toward more self-promotion than is absolutely necessary for my professional well-being.”

      Liked by 4 people

  4. victoracquista says:

    Excellent post, Curtis! At some ill-defined time since I began writing in earnest, I noticed that my reading had changed. Previously, I read without paying attention to the author’s use of words, sentence construction, use of dialogue, narrative exposition, etc. Now when I read, I pay attention to all of those things and more. I am aware of the author’s style and unique voice. What elements appeal to me as a reader? What do I notice that turns me off? How do these observations impact me in my writing? Because I have become a more critical reader, I have become a better writer. One of the things I often remind myself of is my need to read more and to read things I might not ordinarily be inclined to.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thanks, Victor. I fully agree that reading with a critical eye teaches us a lot. Not always easy, I find – a good story leads me to read for the sheer enjoyment; sometimes I go back to see how it was done. Two different modes of reading, but both very valuable.

      Liked by 5 people

  5. @Victor: “Because I have become a more critical reader, I have become a better writer.”

    Exactly. Exactly!

    Though some argue this is a lamentable loss of innocence (the fact that critically thinking adult readers can never again read with the rapturous transport and ecstasy with which they surrendered to the fictional dream as children), I argue that critical reading is akin to having an intelligent tour guide accompany one as you explore the treasures of an art museum: You still appreciate the works on display while noting context, aesthetic principles, techniques of the craft and minor or major flaws in the work.

    Liked by 6 people

    • victoracquista says:

      Carl, you have eloquently captured something about a lamentable loss of innocence. I miss the carefree innocence of my previous life. Part of me just wants to look at and enjoy the art without noticing the details.

      Liked by 5 people

  6. DocTom says:

    Excellent discussion, but style is not the only thing you pick up from reading. Over the years I’ve become very sensitive to plot errors. Non-sequiturs, cliches, etc. have become more and more common in genre writing, and despite the beauty of style, they grate. Not quite a case of ‘missing the forest for the trees,’ it’s more a case of placing a flamingo on the ice floe next to the polar bear, or as in the classic cartoon (of course aimed at the sciences) ‘then a miracle occurs’, the miracle event or happenstance that lifts the writer out of a sticky situation.

    The difference is that when you read a well written novel, the “miracle” is often the result of some subtle seed placed much earlier in the story by the author. I remember being very impressed as a child when I read a story only to find that the seemingly innocuous event early in the story became the key to a successful conclusion. Now, of course, you just realize that the writer did all the work necessary to make sure the story made sense.

    As far as style, I fear that with the explosion of MFA’s in editorial positions, we are now becoming subject to the tyranny of dictated style. But I’ll leave that to the more literary members to discuss.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the addition, Tom – quite right that plot structure also comes across through reading. Perhaps it takes a more conscious intention on the reader’s part to analyse it; many times I’ve thought that a plot is satisfying (or not), without bothering to study its components. Probably something I could profitably do more often.

      Liked by 1 person

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