Writers are as much artists as are painters and sculptors. There’s no formula for great writing. Rather, it’s a craft, guided by intuition, emotion and experience. Practice is, of course, paramount in improving that craft. But so is study. Do visual artists learn from one another? Do they try different art forms, go to exhibitions and galleries, and analyze the work of others? Absolutely—and writers must do the same thing.
In On Writing, Stephen King gives two instructions on how to grow as an author: write every day and read every day. Writing hones the skills you have, but reading opens your eyes to new ideas and techniques.
Point of View Studies
One of the first decisions a novel writer must make before putting pen to paper is the point of view of the story. You might already be very comfortable with one point of view, but that’s exactly the reason you should be reading examples of other points of view: to see the benefits they can bring.
Writing in first person allows you to get in-depth with your main character, but it potentially limits the reader’s understanding of other characters. Third person gives more options in this regard, but it probably means you won’t be quite as comprehensive with any one character. It can also get tricky sorting out what will probably be a more complex story.
Present vs. Past Tenses
Deciding on the tense of your story is another immediate decision to be made. Lots of people have one they favor, but have you ever tried working in another? It’s an exercise worth trying, but before you do it, you should read how other people are using that tense.
Present tense creates a sense of immediacy and draws the reader into the action. However, it largely limits you to, well, the present. Short of flashbacks, there’s no way of moving back and forth through time, as you can with past tense.
Vocabulary and Word Use
Painters mix paints to create an infinite variety of colors. Then they put paint to canvas in their own unique style. Writers don’t need to create their words, but they do need to learn them. There’s no way of expanding your vocabulary other than studying the words of others.
But just having a good vocabulary means nothing if you can’t effectively use it. The way you use those words is how you create drama, evoke emotion and draw the reader in.
When writers are starting out, they often just put words to paper, describing in detail what they hope the reader will take away from their scenes. But there’s more to writing than just good word use and great storytelling. There’s the voice of the author, the tone the writer takes that is uniquely their own. It’s a culmination of every aspect of writing, from perspective to vocabulary to word use.
Ever read something and have just known who wrote it? That’s voice. You may have done it with Shakespeare. No one sounds quite like Shakespeare. Some authors are light-hearted. Others are heavy in description. Some are formal, some informal. What do authors do that give them that voice? What can you do to expand on your own voice?
If you’re a genre writer, reading other works in that genre helps you better understand what readers are looking for. What are other writers using in terms of word use, tense, point of view, and characterization? What elements really contribute to a story belonging in a particular genre? And, just as importantly, how do other writers make their own works unique within that genre?
But don’t trap yourself within a single genre. Artists often experiment with new materials. There’s no reason a writer shouldn’t. Investigate works outside your comfort zone. Even if you don’t try your hand at a new genre, consider what elements of other genres might complement your own.
We all get writer’s block, and when we do, we need something to jump start the creative process, and the creative works of others are a great source of inspiration. Perhaps another author has already addressed situations similar to the one you’re up against. How did he or she work around it? Or maybe he had a sound general concept, but you’ve figured out a brand new direction to take it.
For these reasons and more, reading is an integral part of improving yourself as a writer. The works of others are sources of inspiration and education, offering up new techniques and giving insight into those you’re already familiar with. No person develops in a bubble with only himself as a guide. You have to look beyond yourself if you wish to develop. So get out there are write, but also, get out there and read.