The biggest difference between reading for entertainment and reading in an active attempt to learn about how the words work is asking why. All readers have opinions on what they read, no matter how big or small or tangential. Words are powerful things. They leave impressions. Sometimes they make us like a character, dislike a plot, fall in love with a fictional world, or loathe particular paragraphs. These are the little pieces that add up to a reader’s overall judgment of a book–how will you rate it? Will you read it again? Will you recommend it? The answers to those questions come from how we feel about a book as we’re reading. When you want to take even more from your reading experiences, to pick out techniques to use and avoid in your own writing, the first thing to do is start asking why.
Not only asking, but forcing yourself to give a full answer. Don’t allow any “I don’t know”s, or “I can’t explain it”s. You like a character? You cringe at a section of dialogue? You love a particular sentence so much you want to read it over and over? Ask why. And answer.
The more you do this, the more you explore the mechanics of writing. When you find characters you like and explain to yourself why you like them (do not say “they’re just awesome,” or other vague non-answers. Challenge yourself. You’re the one who benefits from the effort yo put into this exercise), you’ll start to notice trends. I like characters that are fallible, that are morally gray, that lie or are unreliable for other reasons. I like them because they’re unpredictable and sometimes unstable. I like them because they could do the right thing, or the very wrong thing. I like trying to decipher their motives. What sorts of characters do you like? Why?
Character is only one example. You can do this for virtually every aspect of a book. Length of chapter. Amount of description. Progression of plot. Dialogue tags. Sometimes (almost always) it’s very subjective. It’ll make you look for answers in individual sentences, or pick out specific words. Sometimes appreciation for a whole scene comes from one great choice of words in a fragment of a sentence. Look closely. See what’s in the lines, and what’s between them. Why does it work for you?
The next step is to incorporate your findings into your own work. Maybe this means exploring your reasoning behind choosing a certain genre or form, or maybe it helps you form plot or character traits that appeal to you. Maybe it’s the emotion that gets under your skin, that you can learn to wield just as well as your favorite writers seem to. Conversely, you’re probably also learning what not to do. You’ll discover the specific things that annoy you to read, and you’ll avoid them.
As I mentioned earlier, this is all subjective. Writing is subjective. Different folks like different jokes, and some don’t want to read humor at all. Find what works for you, and make it work under your own pen. To write objectively, learn to look at writing critically. Ask why. And answer.
The Literary Elephant