If you fall down the right wiki-hole in the tinfoil hat-wearing corners of the internet, you’ll learn that “it was aliens” is a rational origin for much of modern technology. Whether it came as gifts from our interstellar allies or was reverse-engineered from crashed saucers, no one at Area 51 is returning my calls to confirm.
But in a big way, reading another author’s work is the same as discovering a UFO from another galaxy and digging out its secrets.
Some philosophers say each person is a world, so it would follow that each message they send out is a vessel from that world. So how do we as writers who want to upgrade our own abilities brush away the dirt and damp forest leaves, find a seam for our crowbars, and pry open a panel of alien metal to reach the glowing sprockets and humming diodes inside?
Audiobooks are great. Listen to them proudly. But if you’re a writer, that can’t be the only way you’re getting another author’s words into your brain. Podcasts on topics relevant to the craft and books read by skilled voice actors are great for developing your vocabulary, feeling the cadence of communication and storytelling, expanding your expertise, and finding inspiration.
But let’s get real: It’s not reading.
Every writer must read as much as they can and as broadly as they can, and you can’t read with your ears.
Catching new ways to fit words together is much harder if you’re listening rather than reading. It goes by too fast. You can’t luxuriate on the language. And learning how to punctuate difficult sentences and play around with format and voice is impossible because you can’t see what the writer is doing.
Please don’t think I’m trashing aural media. The tone and rhythm of Stephen Fry’s reading of Harry Potter has been a great influence on me as a writer. And plenty of podcasts have sent me grabbing for a pencil to write down new ideas. But for writers, that can’t be the extent of it.
The limitation (and beauty) of print and digital works is that you have to be present for them. This is an obstacle for all of us. Who isn’t too busy to read? But get creative. We’re writers; if anyone can do it, it’s us. I’ve read plenty of chapters on my phone while sweating on the exercise bike, riding shotgun down the highway, or kicked back at my desk on lunch.
Reading transports us. Whether we’re scrolling through fun listicles, political think-pieces, or tabloid drama, our minds naturally create pictures, letting the individual words blur together while we beam information into our minds.
We’re dashing around planets with the Top 5 villains Marvel Studios could introduce next, in the Capitol for the latest partisan skullduggery, or in some glitzy locale where one millionaire is feuding with another.
But for us as writers, it pays to stay conscious of the words themselves. It’s fine to get swept up in an engrossing read, but intentionally pull yourself back at least occasionally to watch what the writer is doing, and learn from them. It’s a bit like how coaches will show their teams tapes of old games so they know how to play in future games (I learned this from a sportsball movie).
You may need to read things twice—once to take it all in, then once to pick it apart. But with practice you may be able to train your brain to watch for things that stand out. I’m in the middle, and if you’re like me, reading deliberately also means reading slowly. But what I gain makes it worth it.
I always keep a list going in the Notes app on my phone. It’s filled with words I didn’t know and needed to look up, creative words I wanted to remember, and words used in ways I’d never seen before. If I find a phase I like, I add it with quotation marks so I don’t forget it isn’t mine and accidentally plagiarize it later.
Once I’m confident a word has entered my vocabulary, I delete it from my collection, but that list is still pretty long and keeps getting longer.
All this was found by reading another writer’s work. And now when I write, I have more pieces to work with. There are more colors on my palette. My ability to express myself is broader and richer.
Plus I’m more careful in how I express myself. It’s tempting to indulge in extensive detail and pointless digressions. I may care enough about my topic to write a giant chunk of text about it, but if my mind drifts to other things when reading other writers who do this, I can expect these things to lose my readers’ attention as well.
Recently I read a lengthy description of a desert landscape. It was fine prose, but I didn’t learn that until my second pass. That’s because my eyes glazed over my first time through it, and I had to force myself to go back and reread it. The paragraph painted a vivid mental picture, but it didn’t matter. All the writer had to say was “desert” and he would have kept my focus just fine.
Reading another writer’s work not only helps you discover new tools, but it also lets you test them out with you as the guinea pig.
Reading another writer’s work will intentionally help you navigate the perils of grammar and punctuation—ever wondered why something you wrote just looked wrong? It’s because you saw the “right way” somewhere else but didn’t remember what it was.
Furthermore, reading other writers’ texts opens you up to worlds of technical and stylistic variation.
After two decades of hearing how great it is, I’m tackling the Wheel of Time series, which is at least a hundred billion pages long. What I’ve learned so far from the first four books is a different way of breaking up paragraphs.
Shorter paragraphs are almost always better in digital media, and I like short paragraphs in all of my writing, but author Robert Jordan smashed each character’s dialogue together with all internal and physical action of that character to create one big paragraph.
His paragraphs may seem overgrown—and the same could probably be said of his page counts—but it’s a different way of arranging thoughts than I’m used to. And I’m starting to like it and experiment with it in my fiction writing.
Reading Jordan’s books with an eye for what I can learn from him has shown me new ways of expressing information on a technical level.
Last year, I read a bunch of Stephen King novels. In Rose Madder, the third book what’s often considered his “feminism trilogy,” King uses italics for sections told from the perspective of the insane, abusive husband, while the rest of the book is told from the clear eyes of the wife. In the first book of that unofficial series, Gerald’s Game, King uses italics to make it clear which aspect of the protagonist’s slipping mind is currently “talking.”
Given the wild and potentially unreliable narratives of those books, using italics for large swaths of text (it’s easier on the eyes than you might expect) helps keep the reader straight on what’s happening.
As writers, we don’t simply absorb media—we consume it, digest it, and beam it back out as something never before seen on this planet. You don’t have to use everything you discover under the hood of each crashed spaceship. A lot of what comes from other worlds might not work on yours.
But a big part of learning and refining what you want to do is deciding what you don’t like. Take note of what loses your attention, and also what keeps it. Which words are used too many times? Which phrases make you groan?
The more writers you study by reading their work as a writer, the greater your technical competence will be and the clearer you’ll be able to refine your own distinct voice.
Nathan Winfrey graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma with a degree in journalism and a minor in creative writing. After years navigating a colorful succession of reporting and editing jobs, he took the helm of his hometown newspaper before eventually becoming the copy editor for the largest state agency in Oklahoma. Nathan is currently a content writer for Craft Your Content.