It’s a safe bet to assume that writers love to read. At least...we should. As writers, reading is foundational in shaping our craft. But have you ever considered using the books you love as tools to improve your own writing?
If you struggle with finding your own voice as writer, or want to improve a certain aspect of your writing, turn to your favorite titles for more than a good read. Here are five tips that can help you become a more active reader and writer.
1. List out your favorite titles
What books, short stories, poems, etc., do you like most? You can make your list as short or long as you like, but I recommend between five and ten to start. You don’t want to get overwhelmed with a list that’s too long.
I went through my personal library and selected these titles:
-"A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger
-One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
-Sula by Toni Morrison
-The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
-The Fuck-up by Arthur Nersesian
-The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
-The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Here's a family portrait of the books from my list that I have in print
Of course, everyone’s list will (and should) differ.
I recommend "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" to all lovers of short story. Read it here.
2. Analyze your list
What do you notice? Does anything immediately stand out? What do you like about these titles? Are they written by the same author? Do they share common themes or plot? What about writing style? Length? Maybe you’re drawn to certain types of worlds and characters.
Me admiring my books
Using mine as an example, I see that these titles are relatively short reads. They have complex and dark sided characters. Most have a gritty tone and all have fantastic world building. These authors all have successful dialogue, which lends to great characterization and plot progression. And what I love most about these books is their questioning and studying of human nature, their respective contemporary societies...I can go on, but I won't.
Try writing down what your favorite authors are doing right, and compare that what you would like to work on.
3. Study the writing styles of your favorite authors
How exactly should you study? Well, that’s up to you. Make the process as casual or intense as you want. Just stay dedicated, and don’t burn yourself out. You can't better your writing if you aren't motivated and give up.
You may choose to write notes in your book, or keep a notebook, or write down nothing at all.
I own 4 copies of The Picture of Dorian Gray. One is my beautiful copy I barely touch, just admire. The next two are within larger Oscar Wilde Anthologies. And the last is an extremely cheap edition I purchased to carry around in my purse and to write in. There's a method to my madness...
My Oscar Wilde Collection
If time and general interest permits, annotation can be helpful in your study of authors. Just try to keep track of your thoughts and what’s standing out to you.
One of my annotations
4. Listen to your favorite books
Some people learn best auditorily. And some books are best heard, than read. Afterall, in such a fast-paced society, we just don’t have time to sit around reading and taking notes, and audiobooks have gained more and more popularity. Some books are available on YouTube for free, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, read by the Benedict Cumberbatch.
You can also check out resources like Audible, Spotify, or even a membership at your local library! Try reading out loud to yourself. Hearing the text helps me most with understanding dialogue and exposition.
5. Start copying
No, I’m not condoning plagiarism. But after you develop a deeper understanding of different writing styles, you should practice writing your own original content using your favorite authors as your compass.
Don’t overwhelm yourself. Try for instance, writing first lines. They are arguably the most important part of a book. I love the opening lines of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:
“They’re out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.”
Haven’t read it? Read my review here.
And The Catcher in the Rye:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Read my review here.
Try writing in different narrative voices, or in a genre you’ve never attempted. Make your exercises manageable by committing to just writing a paragraph, or maybe a page of dialogue in a new style. Start small.
The blunt truth of the matter is that not everyone can write. There are very few who are born with talent. Writing, like most talents, is learned. It is a craft that requires dedication, will, and focus. Practice and enthusiasm will always make you a better writer. Don't get discouraged. Just start reading.
Feeling stumped? These tips might help.
What books inspire your writing?