One of my favorite sayings is “No life is ever wasted: You can always serve as a bad example.” Of course as an author, replacing “life” with “book” works as well.
Nothing is more disruptive to enjoying a story than being thrown out of it for some reason. This can occur due to the usual suspects like typos and misused words, an inconsistency such as an eye-color change, losing track of who is speaking, poor scene transitions, viewpoint character unclear, and so forth.
When this happens, put it to good use. If something throws you out of a story, stop long enough to figure out why. Then make sure you’re not guilty of the same thing. You can learn from all writers, whether more or less skilled than you are.
Read a variety of books and genres, those written by those more skilled than yourself as well as those less skilled. You can learn something from both. Sometimes the glaring errors of most amateur writers call attention to some silly thing you do yourself, but have been blind to. It also allows you to see how far you’ve progressed. To paraphrase a favorite quote, “No book is ever wasted. You can always serve as a bad example.”
However, it’s important to read well-written stories as well. A steady diet of poorly written stories may help you identify pitfalls so you can eliminate them, but that alone won’t make you a better writer. If anything, it will make you a frustrated reader. Nothing takes the joy out of a good story faster than when it’s poorly written.
Believe it or not, you can pick up a certain amount of writing skill by osmosis, simply by repeatedly exposing your brain and subconscious to strong writing. However, a well-written story that flows well sucks you in, but you probably would have a hard time explaining why it worked. It’s a lot easier to see something that doesn’t work when you trip over it. But you’d be surprised how you can assimilate those skills.
As with so many things, variety is the spice of life.
Feed your inner editor by reading others’ work with a critical eye. Often what jumps out is something you do as well. I have had many an “Aha!” moment tripping over something awkward in a story, then realizing I was guilty of the same thing.
I admit that always reading in critique mode has a downside, but when you’re an editor at heart, you can’t help it. I know something is well written when I don’t keep stumbling over things that throw me out of the story. I can’t always tell you what they did right, but I definitely know it worked.
Thus, you can learn a lot from less skilled writers. There are so many typical mistakes such as overuse of adverbs and prepositional phrases, awkward dialog, clumsy flashback transitions, viewpoint swaps, and so forth. When ever something jolts you out of the story, take a few moments to identify exactly why.
On the other hand, reading well-written stories has a more subtle effect. You can become a better writer by osmosis when you familiarize your brain and subconscious with strong writing.
Expanding on yesterday’s advice to read the type of story you aspire to write, keep a writer’s notebook where you jot down particularly memorable phrases and descriptions. While you may not use them, study their structure and figure out why they were so effective.
A skillful combination of carefully chosen modifiers can convey a vivid image. Here’s a paragraph from Michael Crichton’s State of Fear as an example:
“It was brighter, the sun now higher in the sky, trying to break through low clouds. Morton was scrambling up the slope, still talking on the phone. He was shouting, but his words were lost in the wind as Evans followed him.”
How much did he tell you using only 42 words?
Authors all want to gather positive reviews, not only because they’re encouraging and feed your ego, but because they help readers decide if they’ll like it and then, hopefully, buy it. Being an active reviewer yourself is good karma and helps you network with others.
You can learn a lot about writing from other author’s work, both negative and positive. Once in a while something in a book may drive you to distraction. When this happens, think long and hard about whether you’ve ever been guilty of the same faux pas. When you read something that makes you hope you can write that well someday, spend some time analyzing what made it so outstanding so you can incorporate a similar technique in your work.
Make a list of your favorite stories that specifies everything you liked about them, such as well-developed characters, clever plot twists, imagery, couldn’t put the book down, and so forth.
Now, take that list and compare what impressed you to your story and see if there’s some way you can improve. You’re not likely to learn simply by osmosis; conscious observation will assimilate it to your benefit.
Then, if you’re brave enough, do the same for stories you didn’t like and compare them to your work as well.
Knowing your competition is wise in any business with writing no exception. Reading other books in your genre helps keep you on top of trends and know where your work fits in. Authors more skilled than you will keep you humble, those less so show how you’ve progressed. Studying techniques used by other authors comes in handy and can improve your own writing. Especially savor sentences and paragraphs that are well-written as examples you’ll want to emulate.