What “Read More to Improve Your Writing” Really Means

Everyone says you should read a lot if you want to improve your writing. A blanket statement if ever I heard one. 

Anyone can read. There are readers out there consuming 100, 200, and even more books a year. You don’t see them automatically writing bestselling novels. That’s because just reading isn’t enough. I think there should be a caveat to that sentence. It’s not enough to just read. You have to analyze, deconstruct and synthesize that reading into your work. That’s what we’re going to look at today.

A Word on How You Read

When I say you have to read consciously and not lose yourself in the story, many people object, because “escapism” is half the joy of reading. Look, I’m not saying you’re never allowed to read solely for fun. What I’m saying is to try and keep part of your brain conscious. Allow it to roam the pages for sparkling dialogue, description that sings, or characterization that takes your breath away.

Underline those sentences, or if that’s too much like sacrilege, use a sticky tab to highlight where you found sentences that jumped out at you.

How to Pick up on Sentences

In order to find interesting sentences, I ask how or why an author created that particular sentence or effect. I go into detail on this topic in The Anatomy of Prose, my latest book. Here are some examples:

Dialogue

  • Why did that line of dialogue make me laugh?
  • How did the author use the back and forth between two characters to show insight into their emotional wounds?

Description

  • How did the author use punctuation to create descriptive rhythm?
  • Why did the author choose those words to create a descriptive metaphor?
  • How did the description shed light on a character’s personality?

Technical Observations

  • How did those conflicting words create such a powerful juxtaposition?
  • Why did the author choose to break that writing rule in this sentence?
  • Why did the use of alliteration in this description work so well to create vivid imagery?

How to Analyze What You’ve Read

It’s all good and well telling you to ask questions, but the real lesson comes from the analysis and then putting it into practice. So, let’s do just that.

Worked Example

I dug through my file of quotes (yes, I collect quotes from books where I think a lesson can be gleaned) and found a great example:

“I see no secrets in your gaze,” I said. I see only night and smoke, dreams and glass, embers and wings. And I would not have you any other way.” Roshani Chokshi, The Star-Touched Queen.

There are many observations we can take from this quote. But I’m going to focus on just two: 

Observation 1

Chokshi has created characterization as well as character description by elaborating through the narrator’s inner dialogue. This means the narrator doesn’t want the character being described to know what they think or feel about them. It also shows the narrator’s vulnerability as it’s clear she “likes” the character she’s describing. 

Observation 2

Chokshi has used a specific repetition technique and rhythm to create the description. Specifically, “X and X”. Her words are:

“night and smoke”
“dreams and glass”  
“embers and wings” 

You can take both these literary techniques and use them in your own work with your own words.

Putting Lessons into Practice

Note that we are not copying the author’s words, their characters. or characterization. That’s plagiarism. Instead we are using the literary techniques like inner dialogue to increase characterization, or the X and X rhythm of description to create our own descriptive flow. Some techniques might work for you, others you may hate. But unless you try the tools and techniques you discover while reading, you won’t shape your own writing voice. 

To give an example of this in practice, I’ve used two characters I’m currently developing for a new series: Earl (the narrator) and Scarlet (the woman he’s describing). If I wanted to use the same techniques and rhythm Chokshi used, I could create something like this:

“There is death in your eyes,” Earl said. Death and blood, vengeance and war, power and victory. Everything I like in a woman.

You’ll note that, while I used the same techniques, my sentences are completely different from Chokshi’s. Different words, different characters, different tone and feeling.

If this feels too similar to Chokshi’s sentence, I could include Earl’s thought in the narrative description rather than inner monologue, like so:

“There is death in your eyes,” Earl said. Death and blood, vengeance and war, power and victory. Everything I like in a woman.

Or I can get rid of the X and X technique while still using the narrator’s inner dialogue to show how he really feels about his counterpart.

“You reek of death,” Earl said. I like that in a woman.

If I preferred shorter, cleaner descriptions, I could still use the X and X rhythm but make it sharper by removing all but one instance, like this:

“There is death in your eyes,” Earl said. Death and blood. Everything I like in a woman.

You can see how much you can take—both lessons and technique-wise—from the analysis of just one quote. Yes, reading is important, nay, essential as a writer, but I truly believe it’s more than that. What’s important is what you do with your reading and how you analyze what you’ve read. It’s that intentional practice that truly helps you develop as a writer. 

Sacha Black

Resident Writing Coach

Sacha is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy. The first two books in her Eden East Novel: Keepers and Victor, are out now. You can find her manning the helm at The Rebel Author Podcast, and on social media:
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Susan Royal
2 months ago

I’ve always been an avid reader, but I didn’t start dissecting what I read until I started writing. If a passage sticks with me, I’ve learned to study it to see why. I don’t see it as a whole, I learn to pay attention to the little things. And it’s made a big difference in the way I write.

Joelle LeGendre
2 months ago

Most of us have one dream, to find a publisher passionate about our work and an editor who works well with an author. Unless you’re rich, famous, or notorious, that is nothing but a pipe dream filed under the heading of, “Some day my prince will come.”

All we can do is write, and try to find a scrap of information here and there to help us improve that doesn’t cost a lot.

Thank you for helping others by passing along great advice.

trackback

[…] Writers are often readers. Rachelle Gardner explains why you should be if you are not, and Sacha Black explores the true meaning of “read more to improve your writing.” […]

Renee Gallant
2 months ago

I love how your brain works! Excellent thoughts. Time to break out the notebook

Sacha black
Sacha black
2 months ago
Reply to  Renee Gallant

Hehe thank you so much

BECCA PUGLISI
Admin
2 months ago

Love this! I’ve got a little spiral notebook that I keep beside my bed where I jot down interesting phrases so I can pull them apart later. One of my FAVORITE things to do :).

Sacha Black
Sacha Black
2 months ago
Reply to  BECCA PUGLISI

Yay! fellow word nerds unite! :p

Jay Hicks
Jay Hicks
2 months ago

Brilliant. Thank you. I usually listen to audiobooks. If I love what I hear – and I have to to keep going – I often end up buying a 2nd hand copy I can butcher!

Sacha Black
Sacha Black
2 months ago
Reply to  Jay Hicks

haha! I love that, it’s funny you say about butchering, I’ve got a few books that have an obscene number of tags and pencil marks, so much so, I’m considering buying some hardbacks for “best” #BookWormProblems

Donna
2 months ago

Extremely insightful. Thanks a million for sharing. I’m an unknown writer so I drank this in.

Sacha Black
Sacha Black
2 months ago
Reply to  Donna

Glad you found it helpful 😀

Laura Lynn
Laura Lynn
2 months ago

I have been analyzing dialogue lately. It has helped me put together authentic conversations.

Sacha Black
Sacha Black
2 months ago
Reply to  Laura Lynn

Glad you’re finding it a useful exercise 😀

ANGELA ACKERMAN
Admin
2 months ago

This is great, Sacha. I tend to get lost in the story as I read and need to remember to mentally flag points that get me in the gut so I can reflect on what makes them powerful. 🙂

Sacha Black
Sacha Black
2 months ago

We’re all allowed those books though! Sometimes it’s lovely and just what we need to lose ourselves in escapism, especially at the moment!

Bette Stevens
2 months ago

Great tips and examples! Thanks.

sacha black
sacha black
2 months ago
Reply to  Bette Stevens

Glad you enjoyed it.

Existential Deconsructionist
Existential Deconsructionist
2 months ago

Amazing! Incredible! This is how I read! It gives what no other leisurely read can give without which only a terrible sense of unfulfilment and great thirst remains.

Sacha Black
Sacha Black
2 months ago

I completely agree! You get to indulge in the story at the deepest levels!

Sacha Black
Sacha Black
2 months ago

Thank you so much for hosting me once again. It’s always an honor and a pleasure to write for you guys. Especially when I get to geek out on a topic I love.