One of my friends* told me that he was an avid writer. I was ecstatic because none of my other friends at the time understood how much I loved to write. I asked him what genre he preferred to write in and he responded with a confused look. So then I asked him what authors he took inspiration from. At that point he uttered something which I found difficult to believe. He told me that he doesn’t read.
I found it extremely difficult to understand how someone could be an avid writer but not read anything. However, when I read his story, I finally believed that he does not read very much, if at all.
His stories were riddled with errors which made them almost impossible to get through. Truth be told, if he wasn’t a close friend I wouldn’t have bothered reading past the first few lines. He stopped writing a few years ago as he found other hobbies to fill his time but I will never forget the lesson he taught me about writing; those who wish to improve their writing should read.**
I’ve learned many things about writing through reading the stories of others. Every time I read a well written book, my writing knowledge grows. Through reading I have improved my characters, description, plots, grammar, and spelling.
While my character ideas come from people I have met in my life, the way I describe my characters is inspired by the stories I have read. If I read a story with well written characters, I ask myself what it is I like about the character and how can I emulate that in my writing.
For some stories, I like that the character is believable. I like how the character reacts to situations and that their personality grows in a normal manner. Characters take their time to fall in love and are cautious about doing something which hurt them before.
In other stories I like how the author shares information about the character without interfering with the plot. It takes a lot of work to be able to filter in back-story and physical description without slowing down the action.
In general I have trouble writing out description without bogging down my stories. I can never tell while I’m writing if I’ve included enough description or if I’ve written too much. What may seem like good description to me, pales in comparison to the description of other writers.
Anton Chekov famously said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” When I compare my description to others, I feel as if I’m telling readers that the moon is shining whereas they are showing the glint of light.
I take notes when I find sections of description I like. Sometimes the description is very short, slipped into action without slowing the pace of the story. At other times the author gets into the character’s head and reader learns how the character views the world from the description given.
Through these notes, I’ve realized that many of my favourite authors only use relevant description. Everything they describe helps readers understand the plot more fully. Because of this, when I’m revising my works for description, I rate the passages against relevance to the plot.
Of course, description is of no use if the plot line is confused. While plots may seem like one of the easiest parts of a story, they can prove the trickiest if the writer doesn’t have sense of what makes a plot good.
Any writer who has pantsed their way through a long story can tell you how easily the plot can derail from your beginning idea. Plot holes form that you skip over because you don’t want to lose your current train of thought. A simple scene can make you change who your main characters are or where you start your story. Sub-plots can appear that you may not have thought of or can disappear before they are resolved.
The only way to remedy these is to know what takes away from your plot and what helps your plot. In order for you to know this, you need to figure out what your plot is.
When I was first starting out in my writing path, I use to compare my plot lines to those of faery tales. I would make a list of all the events which happen in the faery tale and I would make a similar list of the events in my story. Once the lists were made I would see if my list flowed as nicely as the faery tale list. Most of the time my list did not match up nicely against the faery tale. Sometimes the events would jump, as if there were a scene or two missing. Other times there would be scenes that would work better in another story.
While I can now pick out plot holes and unnecessary scenes without comparing against another plot, it has taken years to develop this skill.
As with developing my plotting skills, it has taken me years to develop what I consider a passing knowledge of grammar. Reading has taught me how well written grammar should look. By knowing what good grammar is, I can more easily catch the grammar mistakes in my works.
That being said, reading does not teach everything about grammar unless you are reading grammar and style books. Reading is not the only way to learn grammar but it is one of the best starting points for new writers.
Similar to grammar, reading can help give writers a start on proper spelling. This trick only works when stories have been edited for spelling. Reading allows the writer to know what the words should look like. The more familiar writers become with correctly spelled words, the more likely they will spell the words correctly themselves.
For those who skipped the majority of this post, the TL;DR version is as follows. Through reading properly edited works which are similar to what you are writing, you will be able to better catch the mistakes which you make. This is simply because of familiarity. The more familiar with something you are, the more you can see the differences.
These are the ways reading has improved my writing. How has reading improved yours? Do you disagree with any of the points I made?
* I am withholding the name of my friend as he is a very gentle creature who is extremely creative. While his writing was an extreme case, I have also read many online stories which contain one or more of these traits.
** There is a vast difference between reading to improve your writing style and comparing your writing against another’s work. There is also a difference between gaining knowledge from reading and plagiarizing someone’s work.