Sunday, December 13, 2015

Writing Basics: Learn from the Greats

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Practice makes perfect, as the old idiom goes, and the more one practices writing, the closer one can become to being perfect (remember: no writer or piece of writing is ever perfect). But you can't improve in an isolated environment, relying only on craft books and revising your own stories.

Instead, you should turn to your bookcase to improve your writing.

To really increase your abilities and the power of your writing, you need to study the work of other authors. Numerous authors, from Stephen King to George R. R. Martin, point to reading as a method of improving one's writing. And it only makes sense, right? The people over at The Art of Manliness have a great article on how copying the work of others can make you a better writer.

Now, there are many ways to go about studying the work of other authors to improve your own writing. Here are the two that I prefer:

1. Literally copy a page or a chapter from a book written by your favorite author (as the article from A.o.M. suggests). 

Going through the motions of copying a good page of writing can help you "feel" what it is like to write well. After copying a page or two, ask yourself: How does copying this story I love feel differently from writing my own work?

This exercise can lead to some great critiquing of your own process, but it is important to use this method and any resulting critique constructively, not destructively. Just because your writing differs from that of say J. R. R. Tolkien does not mean your writing is bad. It is also worth mentioning here that you shouldn't let your analyses of the works of others color your own writing too much; there is a vast difference between using copywriting as a tool for growth and literally copying another author's voice or style. Remember: the goal is to learn from the greats, not copy them outright or make yourself feel back because you aren't yet writing like a seasoned, multi-book deal author. Yet.

2. Read widely, and read with a writer's eye.

It is one thing to read a book for pure pleasure and another thing entirely to study a book. No, I don't mean "study" as in "cramming for your History of Linguistics final;" I mean study as in analyzing and assessing the way the author crafted the book.

It takes a little while to get into the habit of reading with a writer's eye, but once you get into that habit, reading great fiction (or even commercially and socially-claimed "bad" fiction) can increase your own writing ability. Here are some things to look for while reading with a writer's eye:
  • What point of view (POV) did the author use?
  • How does the POV affect the way the story is being told?
  • How does the author describe her characters (both physically and emotionally)?
  • Is there too much detail in each scene, or not enough?
  • Where does the author cut the chapter, and how does the end of the chapter leave you feeling?
  • Is there any scene/action sequence/or dialogue that is hard for you to believe?
  • If you like Character X, Y, or Z, why do you like them? Conversely, if you dislike a character, why?
The second method is my favorite because it allows you to experience various forms of writing while simultaneously expanding your own skill set.

Next post, I will share some of the notes I have been mentally taking while reading Juliet Marillier's Wolfskin.

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