Help your writing with (mindful) reading

Reading time: Just over 4 minutes

Did you know you can help your writing with reading? Here are some tricks for doing just that…

Do you ever reflect on how remarkable it is to be able to read?

We can pick up books (or, increasingly, screens) and translate a bunch of carefully assembled squiggles into fascinating and useful facts. Or we can be transported to other places and other worlds, following the lives of a panoply of characters who are totally different from us.

Reading is interesting, captivating and often free, thanks to public libraries or book loans from friends.

I was thinking about reading lately when I read an interesting Guardian piece about how to pay more attention to cities. (Stick with me. I’ll explain the connection in a second.)

According to the article, ecologist Liam Heneghan has developed a name for the open-minded way of thinking inspired by travel. It is allokataplixis, which combines the Greek allo, meaning “other,” and katapliktiko, meaning “wonder.”

The Guardian article went on to describe how we can all make the cities we visit more awe-inspiring. Suggestions included: looking for ghosts and ruins, getting there the hard way (ie: forgoing Google maps), eating somewhere dubious, reading the plaque, and following the quiet.

As I scanned this quirky and delightful list of suggestions, it occurred to me that perhaps we could all make our reading more interesting by following some equally open-minded ideas.

Here’s how I suggest you give your reading a shot of allokataplixis:

1-Read outside your typical genres

Like most people I have a fairly rigid list of preferred genres. I like literary fiction, memoir and non-fiction focusing on history or psychology. In fact, I prefer these genres so much, I hardly read anything else. But reading outside of our preferred genre(s) can be instructive. If we’re not caught up in the story, for example, we might notice the way the author has constructed sentences. Or we might spot some tricks for fleshing out characters. In short, our disinterest in the genre can help us respond to the writing more acutely. For that reason, I think I’m going to try at least one science fiction book this summer. The genre has never appealed to me but I’ve heard some interesting interviews with the late Ursula Le Guin.  Can anyone recommend a book of hers I should try?

2-Collect an aspect of writing that interests you  

I entertain myself by “collecting” figurative language when I’m reading. I look for metaphors, similes and personification and whenever I find them, I snap a photo with my iPhone. Once a week, I type up my findings on a chart and eventually, I turn them into a blog post that I post every Thursday. You can see these posts here. Many readers tell me they appreciate this weekly missive but I find it instructive, too. The practice of recording figurative language each week has attuned my own eyes and ears to the value of such language and made me more likely to use it, myself. (And don’t restrict yourself to this aspect of writing, only. If there’s something else you wish to focus on — say, humour, or descriptive writing or anything else — go for it!)

3-Copy the work of well-established writers 

Copying the work of writers you’d like to emulate is the fastest way imaginable of absorbing their style. Yes, I mean copying word for word (by hand or by keyboard – it doesn’t matter which.) Of course, I’m not suggesting you try to pass off their work as your own. Instead, you are copying to learn how they did it. After copying a piece (or a chapter of a book), I suggest you read it again, with a coloured pen in your hand, to mark and analyze the lessons you’ve learned from your copying. In other words, become a copy cat.

4-Finish a book you hate

Almost no one will tell you to take this action! In fact, if you scan the internet, most people will do the opposite. Here is what so-called Literary Lady Ginni Chen said on the Barnes and Noble website: “Reading is fundamentally a personal endeavor. You are the only person to whom it matters if you quit a book or hang on until the last page. Nobody will judge you for failing to finish this or that novel, any more than they would judge you for falling asleep while watching a movie or not finishing your sandwich at lunch.” (If you want absolution for not finishing a book, you can read more of Ginni’s thoughts here.)  While I don’t want to short-circuit your reading habit, let me also encourage you to stick with the occasional book you dislike. I just did that with Merilyn Simonds’ book Refuge. I hated just about every second of reading it — largely, I think, because I was such a fan or her much earlier book The Convict Lover,  and to me, the new book paled in comparison. But by the time I had finished Refuge, I discovered that the book contained a remarkable amount of very fine figurative language. I would never have known this if I hadn’t forced myself to finish it.

5-Keep a diary of the books you read

Not all books are great. In fact, some are downright bad. But if you keep a diary of all the books you’ve read, accompanied by some brief notes (I’m talking two to three sentences here) about what you did or didn’t like about it, you’ll have a valuable record of your reading history. I have kept such a diary for the last 17 years and I consult it at least once a month, sometimes more often, to figure out book recommendations for friends, possible gifts for family and others, to remind myself what books I’ve read by particular authors and to generate ideas for new books to read. It’s a bit of work to keep this list, but it’s paid me back a hundredfold over the years.

For writers, reading is so much more than just entertainment. It is as food is to chefs, music to musicians and paint to artists. Reading can instruct, direct and advise us. Don’t miss this valuable way of improving your own writing.

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My video podcast last week aimed to help you avoid plagiarizing.  Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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What books have helped you improve your writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!