Read the Way You Write: Classify It, Deconstruct It, Play with It
Great writing is often borne of an almost absurd level of appreciation and dedication to reading. It takes a special kind of reader—one with incredible patience—to take the time to savor what she reads and to figure out how she herself could create something similarly beautiful.
But, paradoxically, the more we write, the less we tend to read. I mean, I suppose it does kind of make sense. Whole evenings regularly and easily disappear in the pursuit of reading—and writing takes loads of practice and hard work. Which makes for two incredibly time-consuming passions, both likely already outside of the money-making and romatic parts of ones life. Sacrificing reading for the pursuit of writing, though, I feel is a mistake, as it can lead us to lose touch with that which inspired us in the first place.
Of course, it is good to want to work on your writing, and it’s perfectly normal to want to spend every waking moment getting better at it. And sure, reading can feel a bit frivolous when compared to that necessary hard work. But reading is not procrastinating, even if it is fun (and I sure hope you think it is!): it is an important part of maintaining and honing your skills, staying inspired, and keeping in touch with why you write. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that being an appreciative and reflective reader is one of the best ways to work on your writing. After all, where did you learn most of your skills: from a classroom, on the internet, or from thoughtfully reading great books?
To take the best advantage of your reading for your writing, I recommend keeping a reading journal. In it, you can keep track of what you like, play with particular paragraphs to figure out how they work, and experiment with the styles and ideas you read about to improve your own writing. Here are a few ideas for how to start a reading journal of your own:
Keep Your Favorites
Whenever you run across a line you love, no matter what it’s from--be it movie trailer, song, or fantasy epic—write it down in your journal, along with where it’s from and the date you read it. Do the same for paragraphs you love, and even whole scenes. Yes, it is time consuming to write these things down—legibly, anyway—by hand. But think of it as a valentine to the author. By taking the time to express your appreciation in this way, you allow more of your brain to work the words over, to figure out what makes them so resonant. And, as a bonus, you end up with a fascinating record of your favorites over time—as well as a source for inspiration, and a way to revisit the best parts of your library whenever you want to.
But aside from helping you get to know your own literary taste, such a journal is also a great jumping off point for a lot of writing exercises. So much of our writing is drawn from the reading that impacts us most. Gathering it in one place gives us the opportunity to intentionally review, study, and absorb the best parts of everything we read.
Pro Tip: I also recommend keeping three lists in your journal. One for favorite authors, one for favorite books, and one for favorite words. It can seriously suck to try to remember these things without said list. Especially in the cases of the tragically out-of-print.
The beauty of writing is that it doesn’t take understanding to appreciate it, just as we don’t need to know the science behind snowflakes to appreciate their perfection. That being said, just writing down what we love about something—literally and specifically—can greatly enhance our appreciation of it. It also helps us classify the things that make a loved sentence work so well—to recognize them when we see them again elsewhere, and eventually, to use them ourselves.
So, armed with sentences, paragraphs, and scenes you adore, take that next step: number the ways you adore them. It sounds silly, but seriously, getting specific in your affection is a huge step to figuring out how those authors worked such magic—which is in itself, a huge step to working some of that magic yourself. So, write it all out! Annotate the hell out of those sentences. What do you like about it? Start general, but then get as specific as you possibly can. What words stand out to you? If all they do is stand out, that’s okay! Just circle them. Come back to it later. What specific words or sentences make you feel strong emotions or sensations? Write them down—and if you can, puzzle out what words, what pacing, what shifts in focus or voice help to evoke it and enumerate them. And then, get all literary on that sentence. Classify the voice, narrative distance(s), and tone. Describe the pacing, the focus, the point of view, and the purpose of the scene. Note all those literary things I left out here. Describe it till you can’t describe it no more.
As you can probably tell, if you read this column often, I’m in love with deconstructing things. Finding out what makes them tick. Seeing if I can put them back together again—and what happens if I twist this or that knob. I find that, invariably, it leads to a greater appreciation and respect for the talent and craft of the author. Like a pocket watch, a paragraph that took about five seconds to read can have the most complicated technique behind it, only visible when you take the time to look beyond the face of it. Which is why, of course, it was memorable enough to write down in the first place.
To start playing with deconstruction, try taking a paragraph you really love, and tearing it down to its most basic form in your journal. I’m talking he-did she-did basics. Removing details, interesting sentence structure, and unusual words, and sandblasting it to a literal, short description of action. This is your starting point. This is what that sentence could have been, in less talented hands than those of the author. Then, slowly rebuild it, word by word, piece by piece. Group the rebuilding into phases, figuring out how every upgrade fits into the overall scope of things. Mark changes in beat, pacing, narrative distance, and focus, and note how they impact the overall effect of the sentence. I am always amazed by how much I learn by doing this.
Play with the Voice
Playing with voice is kind of like stretching: it’s about keeping you flexible, learning your limits, and pushing those limits until you reach your goals. It’s also great for figuring out the impact of even small variances in tone, focus, and word choice. To start, wait a day or two after you’ve done the deconstruction exercise. Then, read (just) that stripped down paragraph you deconstructed, and flip to a blank page in your journal. Try writing the paragraph from scratch, in your own voice. Then compare the two paragraphs to see what you did differently, and how it changes the impact.
If you want to play with it some more, you can try writing it in different voices. Start by perusing your favorite quotes and titles for inspiration, then try writing the same paragraph as before in a Southern Gothic voice. Then a light, humorous voice. Try for dark, gritty fantasy—and for a high, epic fantasy. Write it in military sci-fi and old school detective. Write it pulp and write it mainstream literary. Note what changes you make in terms of vocabulary, focus, and sentence structure. You may even discover some delicious new tones for which you have an unexpected knack.
Pro Tip: It can also be a trip to wear other author’s voice for a paragraph. Take that same paragraph and rewrite it like Chuck Palahniuk, or Hemingway, or Jane Austen, or J. K. Rowling. Figure out what they focus on, what vocabulary they use, and their pacing. Afterward, break down how the author’s technique affects the read of the paragraph. It helps to start with authors who have distinctive styles, and move up to more subtle authors. Obviously, when it comes to your projects, write in your own voice, but playing with other voices can give us great insight into our writing.
Other Ways to Play
There are, of course, innumerable ways to play with that first paragraph—and every sentence and paragraph that comes after it. You can write a favorite paragraph from a different point of view. You can change the focus of the scenes, or the ambitions of a given character. You can write it in all the different narrative distances. You can write it using only incredibly simple language—or only incredibly ornate. You can even try to write an original paragraph in the style of a favorite paragraph—one that accomplishes the same goals. But what you do in your reading journal with those favorite sentences is less important than taking the time to do it. Because understanding what you love is the first step to creating something you love yourself.