How Writing Made Me A Better Reader
by Writing Workshops Org Admin
A year ago
Nestled into the corner of the landing of the stairs, I could hear everything in the house. I could listen to my mom cleaning the kitchen, my little brother upstairs in his room playing Legos, and the rustling of my little sister as she followed my mom around—all while still going undetected. I would spend hours here alternating between reading whatever book the school librarian had tucked into my eager hands and scribbling furiously in a notebook the ideas I had. These were things like snippets of poems, character and plot ideas, and observations about my small world.
The connection between the reading life and writing life have been well-argued and documented. It was Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, who wrote in her memoir on the craft of writing, “Reading about the response of people in stories, plays, poems, helps us to respond more courageously and openly at our own moments of turning.” We read to know ourselves, we read to know perspectives we can never live, and as writers, we read to sharpen our pen to tell the stories we find urgent.
Read in the Genre You Write In
Being familiar with what others have written on your topic or in your genre helps you as a writer come to understand your own writing. You can avoid the tropes, clichés, and pitfalls of your genre if you are familiar with what makes it tick. You can also utilize and riff off the strengths of other big name and successful authors in your genre. If you write non-fiction, it’s good to read within your topic to explore what has already been said, what is missing, and how your voice can offer a fresh perspective or nuance.
Keep a Reading Journal
I read for the pure enjoyment of immersing myself in another world or someone else’s story. This is a wonderful habit, but sometimes it means that I don’t fully leverage my reading to benefit my writing. Keeping a reading journal helps me turn my reading into reflective and productive work for my writing. What worked well in the plot? What worked or what was missing to establish the world the reader is being invited into? How did the author build suspense well (or not)? Was there a description that really created a sense of place? A turn of phrase that was notably beautiful?
Be as specific as you can in your assessments. What specifically made a character compelling? Was it a particularly quirky mannerism in their dialogue? A particular insight you gained through flashbacks? The way they behaved in a certain scene? The more specific you can be about what worked, the more you will understand and be able to apply what you are learning in your reading life to your writing life.
Take a WWD Class
When I started taking classes at Writers Workshop Dallas, I took any seminar I could fit into my Sunday afternoons because that was the only time I had available. Despite the fact I mostly write non-fiction essay, I deeply enjoyed the classes on plot, villains, and world-building. The seminars I took in those first months not only made me a better writer but made me a better reader and absorber of stories. I began to understand why a story worked, instead of just appreciating when it did. I started to understand why characters fall flat and what to do it about it when they do. I learned about the different ways writers will engage a range of emotions in a scene or plot to draw a reader in. If you don’t have a degree in English or an MFA in Creative Writing, take a class to help you establish some basic knowledge and language to frame your writing journey. Plus, it will enrich the way you consume stories, whether these be books, television shows, or films.
Read Outside Your Genre
No one wants to pick up the latest book in their favorite genre to discover it follows the same old pattern, ideas, and tricks. Much can be learned studying what works well (and not) in your own genre, but other genres can also give insight into what works and doesn’t in storytelling. I enjoy when a book either bends the genre, blends genres, or borrows the best from another genre to make the story a little more unexpected. A crime mystery that draws on the best aspects of what works for generational family dramas? Yes, please. Literary fiction that uses some of the best aspects of the romance genre to make you root for a couple? That sounds fun. Just like you can get ideas for your writing from being out in the world, traveling, researching, and exploring, you can get ideas from unexpected literary resources as well.
Most writers cannot afford to write full time. We have a job (or jobs) and relationships that demand our time and attention. When we write, it is in the margins of our schedule, scraping out an evening here, a Sunday morning there. Supplementing writing with additional reading may seem daunting, but audiobooks can be absorbed while commuting, working, cooking, exercising, or doing chores. Use those times in your schedule to enjoy a book and sharpen your writing skills. Thanks to the Libby app that connects you to your library’s digital content, it does not need to be expensive to read and do your writing research.
Remember, while you are using reading to sharpen your writing, have some fun. We want people to enjoy the work that we produce, take the time to enjoy the craft of another writer.
Author Bio: Cara Gilger is the editor of the books 99 Prayers and Prepare: An Advent Devotional, as well as a writer, speaker and consultant living in the north Dallas suburbs. She’s an uncoordinated fitness enthusiast, avid reader, and mother of two. When Cara’s not writing at www.caragilger.com she’s planning her next hiking trip with her husband, Tim.