How To Read Like A Writer

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

-Ernest Hemingway


In thinking about how I personally learned the craft of writing, it’s hard to minimize the impact of books. For all the classes that I took, and all the seminars I attended, the simple act of reading is responsible for easily 85% of what I’ve learned. At first glance, this might not make much sense – there are lots of prolific readers out there who aren’t remotely good writers – but that’s because not all reading is created equal. The better acquainted you become with the craft, the easier it is to see devices for what they are, to spot the sentences that make a work sing, to notice the strengths and weaknesses of characters… in short, to read like a writer. The following are things you can do to start yourself down one of the most important journeys in any writer’s career, and they are available to you anytime you pick up a book.


Slow Down!

In high school we learn to read things as quickly as we can. Individual sentences don’t matter. A teacher will never ask “What color was Hester Prynne’s dress in The Scarlet Letter?” They ask instead, “What important decision did Governor Bellingham make, and how did it affect the plot?” This trains our minds to look for plot points when we read. It’s great if we can get through a work of fiction and understand what happened, but in reading for events, we lose so much of what brought those events about. Reading isn’t a race! It’s better to understand a single book on a deeper level than finish three books in a row without taking the time to study them.


Guess Where It’s Going

Many writers, myself included, do this subconsciously. If you don’t at first, that’s okay. For now, do it consciously. Put the book down in-between chapters and ask yourself what you think will happen and why. You might find that you’ll not only get better at predicting plots, but you’ll get better at seeing devices such as foreshadowing, that move the story forward from behind the scenes.


When Your Emotions Become Affected, Question Why

If something strikes you, either because it draws you in or is completely unrelatable, take a second to scrutinize it. Is the language bare and direct or filled with a preponderance of vernacular that enthralls you? Is it the characters, the plot, the dialogue or the description that caused you to feel something? Particularly when we become excited, the tendency is to rush through the words. If you’re overtaken in the moment, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t speed through a section – but make note of it and read it again later when your mind can better focus on what it is that makes it so thrilling to read. Can you incorporate their styles in your own writing?


Only Read The Best Fiction

People don’t like this advice. Whenever I tell this to writers, they respond with a list of their guilty pleasure books, telling me how fun they are to read, even though they know they’re terribly written… My advice to anyone considering becoming a writer is this: don’t read any books that you wouldn’t have been proud to write. If you see yourself exclusively as a science fiction writer, what could you hope to get out of a horror? If you want to write like James Joyce, why are you reading Nora Roberts? When you make the choice to become a writer, you should be aware of how your entertainment affects your writing. As writers, we are constantly drawing on the things around us, whether we know it or not. This means that the mere act of reading Twilight could, theoretically, damage your prose!


Don’t Put Writers On A Pedestal

Writers are human. If something bothers you in a book by Dostoevsky or Hemingway, don’t give that writer the benefit of the doubt. It’s quite possible they’ve made a mistake! Millions of readers every day are convincing themselves that when they get confused reading Faulkner, it’s because they read the passage wrong, or because they weren’t alive during the same time period as the author… many of these things may be true, but sometimes, even the best authors make mistakes. I’ve caught misplaced commas in Steinbeck and instances of passive voice in Fitzgerald – these things don’t detract from the excellence of these writers, but it’s important that you see their work, however excellent, without rose-colored glasses. By convincing yourself of their abilities, you risk misleading yourself in your own work. If you think it’s okay for Victor Hugo to go on a twenty page rant about architecture in the middle of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, then maybe it’s okay for you to depart from your own story to talk about the history of the town that your story is set in. If you think Proust’s 150-page-long chapters are okay in his work, why not do the same with yours? Don’t put aside your critical mind. I promise you, even your favorite book has flaws.


Don’t Ignore Grammar

Yes, this is coming from an editor – I’ll give you that. Even so, too many writers ignore things like punctuation and sentence structure when they read. I recommend that instead of skipping over punctuation as if it doesn’t exist, you occasionally study its placement. This might not sound particularly exciting, but at least until you become a master of grammar yourself, it might help you to see how your favorite authors handle it. Do you tend to use more or less semi-colons than your favorite author? How long is his/her average sentence? Given that the best grammar is practically invisible, it’s all the more important to pay attention when it doesn’t seem like there’s much to notice.


Don’t Worry About Books Losing Their Allure

Does following the above advice ruin the time you spend reading? Absolutely not. Knowing where something is going means you’ll be surprised less often, but it will make you all the more appreciative when an author does surprise you! When you’re reading as a writer, you’re “chasing the dragon” of literary fiction. Instead of just reading and accepting the world an author tries to paint, you look beyond their portrait and at the colors themselves, and the act of truly understanding a work of fiction makes it all the more beautiful.


Writing Prompt

The following is the opening to Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. What do you like about it? How is it different from your own writing? Is there anything you can learn from it?


A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.
Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time: drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation. Only the nearer faces are visible at all, and at that only as half-silvered images in a view finder, green-stained VIP faces remembered behind bulletproof windows speeding through the city. . .


Look for positive things. Did you notice the powerful opening sentence? Did you notice how Pynchon alternated the standard order of things as in “Above him lift girders old as…” instead of “Old girders lift above him, old as…”? Did you notice that Pynchon is describing a character as “he” without giving his name in order to increase tension? Did you note the interesting way “soon” was separated by dashes? When you read “Only the nearer faces are visible at all”, did you notice how everything in this Third Person Present never leaves the eyes of our character? How about negative things? Did you notice the considerable use of the word “But” in the first paragraph? Whatever your stance, did you notice how Pynchon occasionally strings on sentence fragments, such as the following: “But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.” It’s okay if you didn’t immediately take these things in. Reading as a writer takes a lot of practice at first.

How To Self-Edit

I encourage everyone to self-edit, and that surprised a lot of people. There’s an idea that, if people edit their own work, they won’t actually need an editor… I don’t believe that one bit. Everyone needs a fresh, ideally professional, set of eyes. Sometimes, no matter how much writer’s edit, they see what they think they wrote, not what they actually wrote. Editors don’t. As much as I believe in editors however, even if you have all the money in the world and can afford to go through as many as three editors, I STILL think you should be doing self-editing! If you don’t edit what you can, an editor will probably be able to help you – but why should they? When they’re editing what you could fix yourself, too much of their time is spent on typos, grammatically incorrect sentences and other small issues to pay as much attention to other areas! What’s more, if upon completion you send off an unedited manuscript to publishers, I can pretty much guarantee that they won’t endorse it. When there are thousands of possible clients sending them books that are practically ready to print, why would they take a chance on a project that would require them to spend more time and money to get it prepared? It doesn’t matter how good it is. Now that you see why self-editing can be so important, here are a couple of things that you can do before you send your manuscript off to an editor, agent or publisher.


Switch Passive Voice To Active Voice

This is a really common piece of advice, but it directly applies to immediate fixes you should be making during the editing process. Most examples of the passive voice in writing books are extremely obvious (“The ball was picked up and thrown by Tom” et cetera…), but when most people accidentally touch on the passive voice, it is far less extreme. When you come across sentences like, “They were invited over by their neighbors for Tea,” or “The animal rights group was well-loved among the monkeys they saved,” it can be easy to pass over them without a second thought, but both of these sentences are written in the clunky and unemotional passive voice. The passive voice, simply put, is the style of writing where things happen to your nouns. In the first example, the ball is what I like to call an “artificial subject.” The focus, instead of being on Tom as it would normally be, is on the ball. The passive voice here isn’t necessarily a problem if you actually want the focus to be on the ball. In a story about a magical ball that changes the fortunes of all who touch it, this sentence would be perfectly reasonable… In a typical story though, it’s clunky, and forces attention where it doesn’t belong. The fix is obvious, “Tom picked up and threw the ball.” The second two examples can be fixed by saying “Their neighbors invited them over for tea,” and “The monkeys loved the animal rights group that saved them.” The active voice is more direct and more emotional; this is why scientific papers are purposefully written in the passive voice! If it’s a little more confusing and a little less emotional, it sounds like a much more important discovery.


When Possible, Remove Direct Characterization

“Raul felt angry” or “Jen was the type of person to put the needs of everyone else above her own” are both perfectly reasonable sentences, but they might be examples of narrators overstepping their bounds. If Raul slams his fists on the table, don’t we know he’s angry? If Jen gives up a seat even though her ankle is throbbing, don’t we know that she puts the needs of others above her own? If your characters really do what you say they will, there’s no need to explain it beforehand! I would guess that, when it comes to the philosophy of “Show, don’t tell,” 90% of the violations come from direct characterization. Another issue I have with direct characterization is characterization devoid of examples. If you as the narrator say that Patty is a soft-hearted person who is always thinking of others, but, because she gets so caught up in the craziness of your plot, she never actually gets around to treating anyone with kindness, then your narration will ring false. Your reader will be confused as to why it is there in the first place.


Turn Responsive Characters Into Active Characters

As time goes on, more and more of the books that I edit are “action novels,” written in the vein of the modern television thriller. There is nothing wrong with that whatsoever – it’s good to have a highly intricate plot – but when perfecting your pre-editor draft, you should be on the lookout for areas where your character is being dragged along. Here are two scenarios to demonstrate what I’m talking about.


Scenario 1:

Your character is told by his superior to disarm a bomb, and so he does.

Scenario 2:

Your character is told by his superior that there’s not enough time to disarm the bomb, but instead, he disobeys a direct order and puts his life on the line to save the lives of everyone left in the building.


Seeing the scenarios written out like that, it’s probably fairly obvious which one makes for the more powerful scene. Oftentimes, however, authors simply don’t think about ways to put control into the hands of their characters. They think, “Hey, I have pages and pages filled with hot girls, fast cars, huge explosions and tons of emotional drama! What more do I need?!” The answer is character development. In my mind, when it comes to the novel, the plot should always be secondary to the characters. One of the best ways to develop your character is to have them act in ways that other people wouldn’t act, and to do things that other people wouldn’t do. They can still check the mail and go out to eat like normal people, but when they do, you aren’t giving your readers any glimpse into who they are as individuals. If you don’t give them options to act on their own, and instead yank them around through plot devices, you might have the makings for a decent action movie, but not a novel. This point reminds me of something I used to say when I was editing screenplays at UCSB: “There’s not a person alive who wouldn’t run away from an ax murderer.”


Remove Unnecessary Semi-Colons

A very common writing mistake is the overuse of semi-colons. Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers, used to say that all semi-colons did was “show off that you’ve been to college.” He completely swore them off in his writing, and his work didn’t suffer whatsoever as a result. While I personally value the occasional well-placed semi-colon, writers tend to go overboard. If something like twenty percent of your sentences have a semi-colon in the middle, you’re probably one of them.

If you’re using them correctly, a semi-colon should connect what would otherwise be two distinct yet similar sentences (or, less commonly, to separate items in a list). It should NOT serve as a conjunction as in the following example: “I love him; even though he doesn’t have much money, I can’t stay away.” If you’re using them accurately, the fix is easy – either replace the semi-colon with a period and capitalize what is now your second sentence, or replace it with a comma and add a conjunction. Here are some examples where a semi-colon detracts from the quality of your writing.

Example: He ran like a bat out of hell; as fast as he was going, he was so focused that he could almost count the blades of grass as he passed them.

Fix: He ran like a bat out of hell, but as fast as he was going, he was so focused that…

Example: The doors closed and I was alone. I could hardly breathe; it was as if all the air had rushed outside and I was doomed to suffocate inside those walls.

Fix: The doors closed and I was alone. I could hardly breathe. It was as if all the air had rushed outside and I was doomed to suffocate inside those walls.


Put Your Punctuation On The Inside Of Quotations

“This is the correct way to do it.”

“That’s right. It’s an easy fix that will make for a very happy editor!”


Remove Distracting Things After Quotations

He looked out from their safe-haven under the park bridge to make sure they were alone. They were.

“I can’t believe I didn’t notice this place before,” he said boisterously, lord knows why.

“Yeah… Sometimes we get so busy we forget about places like these,” she replied, even though she could have just said it.

“You look pretty,” he exclaimed, even though there is no reason whatsoever he should be exclaiming anything.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. If your character is going to say something, you should let their words tell us how they say it. An exception might be “he shouted,” because someone shouting might be relevant to the plot. Even then, if the line is followed by an exclamation point and somebody immediately comes by and tells him to keep it down, the reader will probably get the idea. Here is the same scene written in a simpler, much more elegant way:


He looked out from their safe-haven under the park bridge to make sure they were alone. They were.

“I can’t believe I didn’t notice this place before…”

“Yeah… Sometimes we get so busy we forget about places like these,” she said.

“You look pretty.”


In the above version, I didn’t even include the initial “he said,” because it wasn’t needed. He was the last person to do an action, so it stands to reason that the dialogue would belong to him. What’s more, given that they are alone under the bridge, the “she said” on the end of the third line makes it quite clear who the initial speaker was. If you have a lot of these kinds of things in your writing, you might not want to remove them out of fear of losing some of your word count – but that would be a mistake. Word count isn’t everything. It’s better to have a short, highly polished novel than a long novel full of distracting tidbits that risk annoying your readers. (Think Albert Camus!)


Fix Dialogue Bleed

For an in-depth discussion on dialogue bleed see my previous post Common Writing Styles That Cause Problems. Keep in mind that dialogue bleed doesn’t just occur when an author decides not to use quotations. It can happen under a variety of circumstances. Make sure that the cut-off between your dialogue and description is always clear.


Remove Exposition

Exposition happens when an author tries to get out back-story in shameless ways. For example, if at the beginning of a novel, your main character is sitting on the couch, thinking about her sister whose husband has recently died in a car accident, simply because it would take too much effort to reveal it naturally through dialogue or description, you’ve written exposition. Exposition is the death of subtext, and it often illuminates things that the reader will figure out in a few pages anyway. If possible, try to remove it entirely.


A Few Extra Suggestions That Require No Explanation:

  • Scan manuscript for typos.
  • Fix accidental point of view shifts.
  • Remove accidental drifting into the omniscient.
  • Replace pointless additions in-between dialogue such as “He paused” with real action.
  • If a character has a catch phrase such as “The way I see it…” make sure no other character uses it. If they do, it will ring false.
  • Watch for excessive punctuation. The most commonly overused marks are semicolons and ellipses, exclamation points and dashes being tie for a distant third.
  • Check stylistic choices for consistency.
  • Make sure your character’s motivations don’t change too suddenly at any point.
  • Read your dialogue aloud, and make sure it sounds natural.


If you keep this list in mind when you edit your novel, you’ll set your project apart from the average manuscript, and make it much easier to secure an editor, agent or publisher.


Writing Prompt

Take a story you've already written and edit it! You don't need me this week, but if you do have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them!