If you follow only one rule as a writer, let it be this…

Posted: April 12, 2014 in Keeping It Novel - Bare Necessities
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There is one thing, above all others, that every writer, be they un-published or a bestseller, aged or young, wise or naïve, must do, and that is to read.

As a carpenter must study a table to learn of its construction, or a surgeon must study anatomy to learn of its twists and turns, so a writer must read to learn how to construct sentences; how to use grammar and punctuation to best effect; how to convey the deepest emotion via something so flimsy as paper; how to draw a reader into a world complete with sight, scent and sound using only black ink on the white page; how to write.

I was the little girl who always had a book in hand – or, if necessity really dictated, at least in a bag, readily accessible at the first sign of a handy moment spare. I have always read, voraciously and without restraint, and I can whole-heartedly say that I would not have the passion – nor, dare I say, the talent – for writing, for language, that I now have, were it not for that tendency. I have always been fascinated by how powerful a simple combination of words can be. ‘I love you’, for example, is one of the most spectacular phrases in the English language (in my humble, romantic’s, opinion, of course!) Three tiny words, none of which numbers greater than four simple letters. And yet, it can make an entire life a different thing; it can make the world a sunnier place and the worst hardships bearable. A simple change of one of those words to ‘hate’, and you have an entirely different phrase; a phrase which can devastate and destroy. Incredible, if you ask me – and that is the simplest of examples.

The written (or spoken) word is an immensely powerful thing, and as writers, we have a responsibility to learn to use it properly. We must study it, in all of its forms. Read everything you can lay your hands on; everything and anything in your genre, certainly, as this will undoubtedly help you get a feel for the tone, pace, and all the other little quirks which are inherent to your choice, but everything else you can find too. If you write sci-fi and fantasy, as I (mostly) do, read crime or a thriller to get a sense of how to create tension and pace. If you write historical romances, why not give sci-fi a try to learn how effective authenticating detail (more on that later) can be. Read the newspaper, read your kid sister’s fairy tales, read textbooks and blogs and articles on the web. There is one rule to reading: you cannot read too much.

In my long and protracted trawls through the internet in search of writing advice, I have come across some interesting exercises to help make the best of my reading time, so that rather than simply reading a book, I’m using that reading time to improve my own skills. The four listed below are the ones that I actually do on a regular basis– next time you pick up a book, and I hope it’s not too far in the future, try one of these out!

1.    Keep a reading journal

Use it to note down passages/sentences/words you really like or which have a profound effect on you. Try to analyse the ways in which the passage affected you, and how the author achieved this – think about the specific words used, the construction of the sentences (i.e. short and punchy to create tension or a rapidity of pace) etc, and see if you can  think of any ways in which to improve it. I usually do this part later, when I’m done reading, so I don’t ruin the flow of the book.

Make notes of anything else the author does that you like, or don’t like – this might be the way that they use detail to ground the reader in the narrative, or the incredibly well-developed characters that pull a reader in and make them care about what happens next, or any of a million other tricks or methods.

Make a quick note of words you don’t know the meaning of, and look them up later. A good vocabulary is one which is always expanding.

Keeping a journal like this can be a fantastic cure for writer’s block; when you’re staring at a blank screen, flick through your notes and see if anything inspires you. It also allows you to take deeper notice of what you are reading, and helps make it easier to apply the lessons you might have subconsciously learned to your conscious work.

2.    Question yourself: question what you read

Think of a question before you start reading a book – what themes do I think underpin this novel? What, if any, larger (philosophically speaking) questions do I think the author was trying to address with this novel? etc. Keep this question in the back of your mind while you read, and see how far through the novel you get before the answer becomes clear to you.

See if it ever does.

Analyse your findings: do you think it would have been more or less effective to have made the answer to your question more clear earlier or later in the narrative? Was your question answered at all? Should it have been? What methods were employed to first disguise (if, indeed, the answer was disguised to begin with), and then reveal the answer?

3.    Look deeper…

Read the novel as if it were your own, and you were editing it (personally, I scribble all over my own MS in big red marks, and would never do that to a real book, so your reading journal is a good place for this!). Pick apart the plot structure, the characterisation, the setting, the beginning, the conclusion; look for overused words, clichés, redundancy; (more on all of this in posts to come!) and everything else you can think of. Be as harsh as you would if it were your own work. Can you think of ways to improve the novel in any way?

4.    Try something new

I mentioned it briefly earlier, but it is undoubtedly true that reading novels of another genre than your own can be invaluable. Maybe something new will spark off an incredible new cross-over idea for you. Or perhaps there is something to be learned from another genre: say, for example, that your chosen genre tends to neglect character development; a coming-of-age novel might give you some excellent ideas how to more fully round out the characters in your own work. Use your reading journal to note down the things you learn from your experiment: there’s no point learning it if you don’t remember it tomorrow.

Challenge yourself. Read the greats; study their use of language and see how it differs from modern use; or the subjects tackled by authors of the time compared to what is written about now. Try to take a lesson away from everything you read, whether it be a new word you didn’t know before, or a way of constructing a sentence, or a manner of insinuating a character into a reader’s subconscious.


Of all the many things I plan to say in this project; of all the things I have read and learned from authors far more successful than I could ever hope to be; this is the most important. If you wish to write, you must – you MUST – first read.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things about all others:  read a lot and write a lot…reading is the creative center of a writer’s life…you cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.’ Stephen King

 ‘There are many rules of good writing, but the best way to find them is to be a good reader.’ Stephen Ambrose

“Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.”

Louisa May Alcott

“Reading usually precedes writing and the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer.”
Susan Sontag

Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “Listen to me”. Jhumpa Lahiri – So, first we must listen. Then we must leap.

‘If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.’ Stephen King, On Writing


Y’know what? I’m going to say it again, because it’s just that important.

If you want to write, YOU HAVE TO READ.

  1. helenmidgley says:

    Great tips, especially for a newbie like myself 🙂

  2. Mariah says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I couldn’t agree more.

  3. […] If you follow only one rule as a writer, let it be this… (lilycarmichael.wordpress.com) […]

  4. namesi says:

    thanks much for yo words! sometimes reminders like these can be as inspiring and invigorating as learning them for the first time.

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