Monday, May 24, 2010

Reading Like a Writer

I've noticed a subtle change lately in the way I read. I've always been a voracious reader; it's not unusual for me to finish 2-3 books in a weekend.  But now, I read differently.  I pay attention to the language used, I analyze the characters, and I critique the plot.  Who knew writing would interfere with my love of reading?  Now, I'm not saying it's a bad thing.  It's just different.  

Does it make me a better writer?  Definitely.  Whenever I give my high school students a new writing assignment, I provide them with models.  Reading good books provides the same benefits.  We can learn from the experts.  Earnest Gaines, author of A Lesson before Dying, provides writers with sage advice: "The Six Golden Rules of Writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write."

But what about poorly written books?  Is there a benefit in reading them too?  Stephen King, in his book On Writing, believes that "bad books have more to teach than good ones."  When we can identify the weaknesses in a poorly written book, then we can find out what to avoid or to improve in our own writing.

What do you think?  Is reading beneficial?  Would you spend your time reading "bad books" too?  How has reading affected your own writing?

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22 comments:

MT said...

I'm sure reading poorly written books can teach me a lot about writing, but I can't get myself to finish the darn things. It's painful. Ha!

Andria said...

I don't know if I would finish reading a "bad book" just to learn about writing from it. But I have read books that I thought were really good for the most part, but then there are things that I don't like, writing that I think is weak, and I like to believe that I've learned from reading those.

Right now I'm reading The Hero and the Crown again for the first time in almost 20 years. I find that I still love the story, but I'm even more in love with her prose. She uses sparse dialogue, which I actually love, but I don't know if I can pull it off myself.

Jojomama said...

I think it's true. Anything we read can teach us something. And besides that--even bad writers have something to say that is unique. Their expression of self and ideas--even if ineptly conveyed--teaches us something about people, the world, and YES, at times,what not to do.

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

I know what you mean. I've found myself reading books like I'm CP-ing them. Can sometimes kill all the fun in the story. But even if I feel a book is badly written I definitely keep reading because I learn so much. I honestly think it's harder to learn from good writing because it's too easy to end up emulating a different voice. But dissecting why something doesn't work really teaches you what not to do.

Great post!

Piedmont Writer said...

My whole way of reading has changed since I've been serious as a writer. I just finished a book that was always a real favorite of mine and at the end I asked, "How did this get published?" It was so bad. But I had read it at least 6 times before! How did this happen?

Alexandra Crocodile said...

I've seen a lot of blog posts about this subject lately! I think you have to read if you want to write - it's the best way to learn! Also, reading bad books shows you what NOT to do!

Palindrome said...

reading is definitely beneficial to the writer process. You have to drown yourself in words in order to never run out of them.

I wouldn't spend too much time reading bad books, there are too many great ones out there! Don't waste your time reading the bad ones. I do not agree with Mr. King on this one...even though he's awesome. I just don't have a lot of time to read stuff I don't like and am not going to enjoy.

Marcia said...

I think reading is absolutely essential to writing. I will spend time reading a bad book and agree you can learn a lot from it IF there is some aspect of the book that is at least okay. I put down books I can't stick with, but if a book has one or two weak FEATURES, I may be able to stay with it and analyze why those features don't work.

Carole Anne Carr said...

It does make a difference reading 'good' books. The biggest improvement that has happened to my fiction has been the recent university course I've just completed - writing all that non-fiction stuff, having to be accurate with meaning, no waffle, has had an amazingly good effect upon my ability to write fiction!!

Shelley Sly said...

I do think that we can learn a lot from a "bad book". I only ever put down a book if it is boring me to tears. But if it's poorly written, either grammatically, or the plot has holes, or the characters are cliche, etc. -- Those are things that I do pick up on and make a note not to do the same.

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Sandy Shin said...

My reading habits have definitely changed since I started writing seriously. I now read with an eye for critique that's difficult to turn off. A lot of times, though, I do wish I could go back to enjoying books without worrying about learning from them, analyzing what works and what doesn't.

Though I have heard of the advice to read "bad" books, it's a difficult advice to follow for me. I finish less than 1/5 of all books I start; some of those 4/5 are genuinely good books. I just don't have the attention span, anymore, for bad books. Though I do read to learn, my primary motive is to be entertained. I can't finish a book if I'm not.

Christine Fonseca said...

I think reading is completely helpful! I know I become a much stronger writer due to the reading I do!

Shilpa said...

Reading is the main reason for our imagination to sprout. But i cannot reach the end of bad books anytime.
Love your blog Amy and gud luk on Over The Edge.

Shilpa
http://bonjour-a-tous.blogspot.com/

Natalie said...

For about a year after I started writing it was REALLY hard for me to enjoy books when I read them. If it was a good book I was constantly analyzing why it was good and if it was awful it was way more awful because I could see the errors instead of skimming over them. It's gotten better. I can read for fun again now.

Renae said...

Amy, This post is so VERY good! Exceptional, I must say.

I think I've read like a writer since the time I started teaching. I'm a voracious but S.L.O.W. reader and part of the reason I lag behind most readers is because I relish the writing; I cherish the beauty of carefully chosen words; and I moan over the author's misteps.

I do try to find something redeeming in poorly written books, but I don't seek them out. Most of the times those books came as recommendations from my students - think R.L. Stine, but even his formulaic writing turned up an interesting plot line here and there. (My favorite was about a cute male ghost who haunted a cute teen girl, but he wasn't dead yet! I thought the premise held promise.)

Anyway, thanks again for another great post!

Catherine A. Winn said...

I don't continue reading the "bad" books. I learn the most from the well written ones. Even in those I notice the things that aren't done well, things I would not have noticed when I was "just" a reader. When that happens I know I have grown as a writer.

Mary Aalgaard said...

Oh, yes. When I get caught up in a description, I'll stop and reread it so that I'll absorb the great flow of words in that passage. I've written down a few of the best in a quotes journal. Pacing. I'm learning about pacing as I read, even as I watch TV and movies and listen to dialogue, length of scenes, use of set-up and punchlines. Excellent topic!

Jennifer Shirk said...

I think there's actually a writing book called "reading like a writer". :) a friend of mine was reading it though.

Sometimes the books that aren't written that great have a great plot or story to them, so I think it's really all beneficial.
Great post!

T.J. Carson said...

Ha, I stop reading if it's a bad book. I think everyone has their own opinion, interests, and style. And just because one person does not like a book means it's bad, it just means it did not interest them, it wasn't their style. But reading a GOOD book that you enjoy is always beneficial.

Simon C. Larter said...

This happens to me all the time now. I'll read just about anything, but I've read much less fluffy fantasy since I've started writing, because too often the prose is uninspired and the plots are thin. I've begun to crave more meat in my reading, I guess.

But I agree that reading bad books can teach you a lot. (Wouldn't do for me to disagree with Steve, now would it?)

Great post, good lady. Well said.

Vicki Rocho said...

When I first started writing my book...and hit that first "What am I doing? I'm such a hack" phase, I read a book I honestly don't know how it got published. There were typos galore, and inconsistencies with characters' ages and histories. There were bigger problems with the plot, the dialogue was stiff and painfully cliche in some spots.

Reading the book was a struggle, but I finished it. At the end, I felt so much more motivated. If THAT rubbish got published, then I had nothing to worry about.

Good books are like a road map for me. Whether it's the clever plot twists, the way they developed their characters, or the snappy dialogue, it helps me recognize when I've got it right.