You’ve heard it before: the advice that says, “If you want to be a great writer, be an avid reader.”
Of course, it’s true. But it’s also sort of redundant: you don’t have to tell most writers to read; they already know.
Instead, you have to tell them how to read if you really want to help them.
Expanding High School English
Symbols. Themes. Context. Plot devices.
Wait! Don’t have a high-school-flashback-related panic attack. Come back. It’s easier than it sounds.
So, we were taught a lot of things about how to read and write in high school. These lessons may have served you well, or you may have dismissed them. Either way, if you have a few tricks left over from what you learned reading MacBeth, what you can definitely do is expand on them.
Read for vocabulary
One of the things about reading is the exposure you get to different ideas, cultures, lifestyles, and language. If you’re reading challenging material — like, not Dr. Seuss — you should see words and phrases in your reading that you’ve never encountered before. It may seem remedial, but it’s worth remembering — look up new words.
Some writers love to show off their extensive knowledge by busting out the expensive, precise and complicated language. If you run across an obscure word that sounds super-duper fancy-pants, look it up. Write it down. Make a note. Teach yourself a new word.
Personally, I will recommend the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as my favorite, but realistically, use any dictionary that is convenient and works for you.
You might, if you’re so inclined, even look more into the root of the word and how it connects to other words in its language family. Want to dig into the etymology (i.e. “history” or “genealogy”) of the word? I recommend the user-friendly app, Etymology Explorer, which makes it easy to #werdnerd out no matter where you’re writing.
Read for quirky ideas
Creativity is the ability to connect two unexpected ideas in a refreshing or insightful way.
One of the best things about reading widely and well is the ideas you stumble across that you never would have thought to make. The comparisons that strike you like a belly-flop, the fresh perspectives you would never have noticed.
When you read, keep notes to yourself of quirky ideas that come up. Does a line inspire you to think of a new character? Does a description of a setting make you want to write your own scenes there? What is it about the writing you read that makes you think, and what does it make you think about?
Read for plot holes
Do you ever read or watch something and ask, “Why did the character do that?” or think “I would have changed the dialogue here.”
Well, critical reader, put that critique to use. When you notice a way in which you would handle the action of a story differently, write it out. You may be surprised how adding ideas spawned of critiques can enhance your scrap pile.
You also likely notice, because of your highly trained critical eye, holes in the plot that the writer missed. A loose end that isn’t tied up. A break in the character or problems with the timeline.
Noticing these problems in other writers’ work is a key first step to identifying it in yours. When you can read with an eye for plot holes, you will learn to spot and avoid the same holes in your own plots.