Read to help writing

PadreTX

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If I remember correctly, I have seen on Youtube videos in which George RR Martin and JK Rowling have stated one of the activities a person can do to improve writing is to read.

1) Read both the good and the bad? Reading very popular books I could easily see helping someone write better, but does it help to write better by reading the not so good books?

2) Should one read books from any time period, or to help with writing in the 2020s read only books from 21st century? For example in fantasy, read A Song of Ice and Fire but not Lord of the Rings, or both would help? In my case, I haven't read the A Song of Ice and Fire (did watch the incredible series) but I read Lord of the Rings decades ago.
 

Abernovo

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I'd say read a mixture of stuff, but read a lot in the genres you write in. Read what you enjoy. If you're looking to publish, read a lot of modern stuff, to see what's in the market. That said, markets change, and there is room for niche.

Good and bad? Okay, there are badly-written books, but a lot is down to taste. One of the things I've found, though, is that I'll watch TV or films, and find myself falling out of the story due to inconsistency. It does happen with books as well, but I find slightly less for me.

Get involved in the writing forums here, and discuss book, writing, concepts. Maybe one of the mods could move this to the writing forums, and you'd get more, and probably better, answers.

Finally, welcome to the Chrons!
 

The Judge

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Yes, read the not-so-good books, too, because it's possible to learn from them. Some poorly written books are page-turners because they give readers what they want -- the equivalent of junk food, perhaps, but even a would-be Michelin-starred chef needs to understand what makes meals tasty!

Read as much as you can from whatever period and whatever genre. If you're looking to be trad published, then it's important to know what's happening in your genre now, but being narrow in one's reading won't help either one's writing nor one's imagination -- artists need diversity, to be able to make links between different eras, different styles, different genres. So don't limit yourself to SFF, nor only to novels -- inspiration can come from such things as history and biography and current affairs, and certainly if you're thinking of writing hard or realistic SF, science-based books are important.

And as Aber suggests, I'll move this over to Writing Discussion where this will get more traction.
 

tinkerdan

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I have read a lot and I read a lot.
I mostly stick to Science Fiction but occasionally look for work in Fantasy and some times even some Literary.

It helps in two ways--you can start to appreciate various styles of writing and you can get a feel for what is being done in the genre that yu intend to write in.

It can be problematic to someone who has yet to establish their own style--because there was a struggle for me trying not to sound too much like my favorite authors.

I've recently read a lot of self-published and this is helpful in trying to pinpoint what works and what doesn't work--which is more difficult with traditional publishing since they strive to only publish what they are certain will work--making fewer lemons.

I think that it hurts to not read.
 

Wayne Mack

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I would modify the advice slightly to re-read. I find that I have two different reading styles: reading for pleasure and reading for analysis.

When reading for pleasure, I am focused on the story being told. When reading for analysis, I interrupt my reading and focus on the technique. Why did I enjoy a certain passage? Why did I not want to stop reading after a section and chapter and wanted to keep reading? What sections were a slog to read and why? When a character did something unexpected, did it fit the character or not?

I have found sections that I did not enjoy in books that I liked and I have found enjoyable sections in books that I did not like. It is then a little bit of a puzzle to determine why I reacted the way I did. I find this is an exercise in discovering my style; discovering what I like and what I do not like to read. I then try to translate that into my writing. Personally, my first goal is to write a story that I would like to read and my second goal is have it be a story others would like to read.

It is more than just reading that is important, but reading analysis. But sometimes, I also just want to put my mind in neutral and hear an interesting tale.
 

JS Wiig

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Read what you enjoy reading and write what you enjoy writing.

If you don’t enjoy reading chances are you won’t enjoy writing.
 

sknox

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I second Wayne Mack. Reading for pleasure does not do much to improve one's writing. Reading in-genre can be important, especially in certain genres where there are expected conventions and you'd better meet them. Certain types of romance are like this, for example. Same for certain kinds of mysteries. If you want to know, for example, what steampunk is, the best thing to do is to read a bunch of steampunk, to get a feel for the range and well as the boundaries.

But when it comes to improving craft, reading for analysis is the way to go. This comes back to read read read as well, because you need a good many novels in the backbrain before you know what you like and dislike. It's like developing a palate for wine. Once you have that, you can read for analysis. Eventually you get to the point where you notice things even as you're reading. I just finished a Wilkie Collins novel and was struck by how clever he was in using every hint and clue and person. Nothing's wasted. I enjoyed that, but if I really want to study, I'd go back and note specific passages.

Just telling a writer to read isn't much help.
 

The Judge

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I was thinking about this after reading Wayne's comment, since I've often advised newbies to writing to analyse what they read to help improve their craft. I try to avoid doing it now as from me that advice is Grade A hypocrisy -- I've never taken a published book, good, bad or indifferent, and made any kind of analysis of it or any part or it. (At least not since I left school, which is *mumble mumble* years ago.)

I just read, and by some kind of osmosis I've learned some things along the way. It may be that by some mental quirk (or legal training) I've been unconsciously analysing and applying stuff all these years. Or, of course, it may be I'd have got a lot earlier to where I am now -- and possibly a lot, lot further on -- if I'd actually done some work instead of merely coasting along!
 
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Deke

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I have been thinking about authors ability to paint a fictional world a lot lately. I have two books on each side, good and bad, that I have been using as study guides. These four books are all military space series, all with well constructed narratives and well written characters. What is different, and jarring to me, the reader, is the difference in how the world feels. The two I prefer (Expeditionary Force and Galaxies Edge) the books feel real. I can see the world and its colorful and alive. The other two, I liked the story and the characters but the world just felt grey and uninspired. I never really felt immersed in the scenes or locations they described.

I hope as I write -and- read more I can crack this code. But I am grateful that I read enough to see the distinction and be aware of it as I started writing my own story. I feel the greatest crime I could commit against myself would be to pour all this energy and love into a book just to read it myself and feel it was bland and tasteless.

On your second point, I think as long as you are reading books from your genre you want to write in, its good to read from both the 20th and 21st century. I love modern day space operas, but I also loved and drew alot of inspiration from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and that was published in the fifties. I got many of my more philosophical ideas from that book and it really made me think about how I would weave in the idea of the society, morality, and philosophy of an advanced human civilization into my own work.
 

Biskit

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I just read, and by some kind of osmosis I've learned some things along the way. It may be that by some mental quirk (or legal training) I've been unconsciously analysing and applying stuff all these years. Or, of course, it may be I'd have got a lot earlier to where I am now -- and possibly a lot, lot further on -- if I'd actually done some work instead of merely coasting along!
I think this is another of those bits of writing advice where you have to explore to find out what works for you. I don't read and analyse, I just read, and that seems to work for me. Perhaps I picked things up from reading the same way I write - seat of the pants. The Biskitetta has to analyse. It's the way she works. When she's read a book (and re-read, and re-read...) she'll often comment on how the author has done something elegant, or constructed a sentence that sets a scene where most people would use a paragraph or two.

Putting that in a little more context, we both trained as scientists, and both have a PhD, but in spite of all of that analytical training, I do my reading and writing intuitively. (Although it has to be said that the Biskitetta is unmistakably a better analyst that I am.:giggle:)
 

The Judge

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I've often advised newbies to writing to analyse what they read to help improve their craft. I try to avoid doing it now as from me that advice is Grade A hypocrisy -- I've never taken a published book, good, bad or indifferent, and made any kind of analysis of it or any part or it.
I've just realised I inadvertently fibbed here!

Whilst looking for something else in Workshop, I came across a thread Mouse started 9 years ago which I had completely forgotten about, where I did indeed analyse some passages from published books. So to be more precise, I've never done such analysis of work on my own account in order to see how I might perhaps improve my own writing. (Or, rather, in view of my evidently failing memory, I should say I'm pretty sure I haven't...)

Anyhow, the thread is here, and might be useful for anyone who is interested in seeing how some of us can take a paragraph apart to analyse it if we have to: Dissect this passage
 

The Big Peat

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You pretty much have to have read a lot of books to be a good writer. That is why it is such an universal piece of advice. I'm sure it is possible without, but we're talking rare cases.

You do not necessarily need to be reading a lot of books to be a good writer. I think that's part of "Read" that often goes untalked about, particularly if we're talking trying to be a commercially successful writer while holding down a day job and having a family. Throw in some semblance of self-care and there's just not much reading time. I suspect quite a few successful authors don't actually read that much.

But that's okay, because they've done their reading before.

The reason to read is about knowledge. What good work looks like. What bad work looks like. What this genre looks like. What that one does. What ploys annoy. What's common, what's not. Etc.etc. Read widely, read deeply, read those celebrated for all reasons, read those who go relatively uncelebrated... read. I'd love to give something more focused but it's all individual anyway. Even the most casual read will teach you things.
 

sknox

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>What good work looks like. What bad work looks like.
But how is the novice writer supposed to know how? The thread referenced by The Judge illustrates the difficulty. A great many people read without ever noticing the craft, much as most of us go in and out of buildings without knowing the first thing about architecture. I spent years--decades--loving to listen to music. Once I started making my own, and especially once there was producton software at home, did I understand *how* music was made, and started to be able to tell a good mix from a bad one.

Reading alone is no teacher. Reading with intent is. But, leaving aside the naturally gifted, most of us need tutoring in how to learn *why* one book is good and another is bad, and why we sometimes enjoy a book despite its shortcomings. Forums like this one is a pearl beyond price for the learning author.
 

AnyaKimlin

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No book that has communicated an idea well enough to capture the imagination of readers is a bad book and it has things that can be learned from. Most novice writers are experienced readers and they have a pretty good idea of what they like.

If something pulls you out the story why did it do that? If you are gripped what is it you love about the stories that you return to again and again.
 

The Big Peat

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>What good work looks like. What bad work looks like.
But how is the novice writer supposed to know how?

Good and bad are fairly subjective terms in writing and most readers will be coming up with their own definitions there without any need for input from anyone else. And the definitions they come up with are almost ways the correct ones for them as writers, and the challenge is for them to convince readers that they are correct (and also to find the readers that agree with them).

Even if we wish to be more objective - if we were to suggest to would-be writers lists of certain writers to read or ignore - we'd be facing a great deal of difficulty because there's a ton of possible outcomes for fiction and what's good in one isn't necessarily good in another. Dan Brown might be an example of bad prose to a literature writer but of fantastic plotting to someone who wants to write commercial fiction - but maybe fairly useless to someone who wants to write romance. But maybe they can write the breakout romance thriller by reading him. And maybe they'll just hate reading him and be far better off getting lessons of another book.

The thread referenced by The Judge illustrates the difficulty. A great many people read without ever noticing the craft, much as most of us go in and out of buildings without knowing the first thing about architecture. I spent years--decades--loving to listen to music. Once I started making my own, and especially once there was producton software at home, did I understand *how* music was made, and started to be able to tell a good mix from a bad one.

Reading alone is no teacher. Reading with intent is. But, leaving aside the naturally gifted, most of us need tutoring in how to learn *why* one book is good and another is bad, and why we sometimes enjoy a book despite its shortcomings. Forums like this one is a pearl beyond price for the learning author.

That's just like your opinion man.

And judging from author interviews, it is not one that is universally true. There are authors who, as best we can tell from their own words, learned to write by absorbing a lot of information by osmosis from reading, then honed the knowledge by trial and error with their own writing.

Just like there are musicians who write great songs simply by mimicking other songs without much knowledge of music theory (I've heard solid music from guys who didn't know their scales).

Not all creative arts require as much science as the others. I am very pro-craft but there's no lack of writers who thrive despite paying it little attention.

And even among those of us who aren't so naturally talented, just reading can propel us a long way forwards without needing to get into dissection and meditation.
 

Steve Harrison

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I've only ever read for pleasure as the thought of studying or analysing the way someone else writes doesn't sound like fun. If there is anything for me to learn I let my subconscious take care of business while I enjoy the read.
 

sknox

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I do not doubt there's some sort of learning-by-osmosis to be had. But I'm in sympathy with the novice writer who despairs when told just read and somehow you'll just learn. Or to choose a good book and a bad book, when they honestly can do no more than choose a book they like and a book they don't.

So, by way of trying to be helpful, here's a suggestion to the OP. Find a list of Great Books. There's about a kajillion of them around. I suggest finding a list for your genre and maybe even sub-genre, but also one of more general literature. Pick a book from each list and read it. Did you enjoy it? Hate it? Meh?

Write down your own review. It's just for yourself. Repeat. Keep going until you feel you've identified a book you like and one you didn't.

Go back over those books and try to pick out what exactly you liked and didn't like. Keep in mind the elements of writing, such as character, theme, plot, setting. Look at how they handled dialogue, description, pacing. You're looking for tools and approaches here.

After all that you may or may not have found the exercise useful. But you very probably will have developed some conscious measures of what constitutes good and bad in your eyes. Some folks just naturally can do this. Some folks (myself included) eventually develop an ear for it through sheer repetition. Some folks do it only through conscious exercise. Diff'rent strokes.
 

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