Reader’s Question: How should aspiring writers read?

Q: How do you push yourself to improve as a writer? Do you have any tips for us writers who are just starting out?*

A: Read. Everything. Seriously, reading a ton of fiction is a fiction writer’s number one job, besides writing. I’m a firm believer in reading great books–how you define “great” really depends, of course–but I’m also a fan of reading not-so-great books from time to time. In fact, you can learn an amazing amount from books that are far from amazing. Anyway, you should read in three ways: 

(1) just going along, sort of soaking up awesome writing even if it’s completely different from what you want to do. This is how I read Haruki Marukami’s work. I just hope something sinks in.

(2) very deliberately paying attention to a writer’s moves. I tend to struggle more with plot than character development, so I tend to obsessively chart the plot development in books that build tension and effectively weave together many threads. Then I try to see how and when I can make their moves work in my own fiction. This usually happens in revision.

(3) learning what NOT to do. When something makes you groan, pay attention. What went wrong for that writer? How would you have fixed it? Where did the problem start? Sometimes, for example, the problem with the ending of a book is somewhere in the middle.

Of course, aspiring writers need to WRITE, too, but that’s obvious. Never underestimate the power of your reading to transform your writing.


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