Read what you want to write

It's so clichéd it's true. If you want to write better, you need to read better. That means actively reading the type of writing you want to write.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. And there are lots of scientific studies that show that reading improves both your vocabulary and cognitive skills.

Recently, I edited a masters thesis for a student. And it took me some time to get the academic voice out of my head and think (and write) like me again. The ‘me’ that is heavily inspired by the type of writing in women’s magazines because that’s what I most read.

So, it’s crucial to immerse yourself in the type of writing you’d like to write. If you’re an entrepreneur, find entrepreneurs who are amazing writers and read their work. If you want to write literary non-fiction, find literary fiction authors whose work sizzles off the page. But don’t just devour the writing for pleasure. Study it. Underline the bits you love. Unpick the tools and techniques. Put yourself in the writer’s shoes. And ironically, by doing all of this you get closer and closer to your own voice.

The poet Tennyson once said: “Great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.” I’m all for imitating and improving, so here are some tips and checklists (taken from my book Just Write It!). They’ll help to make sure you get the most out of whatever you’re reading.

Active reading checklist

The easiest way to begin reading actively is to use pencil strokes on the text as you read. So if  the article you want to read is online, make sure you print it out. This may seem simplistic, but making concrete marks out of your thoughts while reading helps to engage and focus your brain.

So, while reading it’s helpful to:

  • Underline key points, phrases and words
  • Write down your thoughts, comments and questions
  • Record every reaction you have

In conjunction with this, use the checklist below.

The title
What is significant about the title? Why has the writer chosen it?

Purpose and theme
What is the purpose of the piece? What messages is the writer trying to convey?

Structure and facts
Why have the facts been pieced together in the way they have? Is there anything unusual about the structure of the piece?

Surprises
Are there any surprises in the data, arguments, issues or story? What significance do these have for the topics being discussed?

Unusual words
What unusual words are there? Why has the writer deliberately chosen these over simpler or more obvious words? What effect do these words have? If you come across any words you don’t understand, look them up in a dictionary and write out their meanings.

Your reaction
What is your opinion on the topics discussed? Do you agree or disagree with the writer? How would you approach the issues differently?

Tone and mood
What thoughts and feelings does the writing create in you? Is the piece cynical, hopeful, cruel, happy or sad, for instance? Why has the writer chosen to adopt a particular tone?

Literary techniques checklist

Looking out for literary techniques enables you to dive deeper into the tools and techniques that writers use. Remember that writers use literary techniques in order to create imagery. When using the checklist below, identify why the writer has chosen a particular technique or used a particular image.

Metaphors and similes
Has the writer described one thing as being another? For instance: ‘Science is the gateway to understanding’ or ‘London is like a melting pot’. Notice that the first example is a metaphor and the second is a simile.

Alliteration
Has the writer used two or more words in a sentence that begin with the same consonant? For instance, ‘Brazil is a riotous clash of cultures’. What effect does this have? How does it make the words and ideas come alive?

Personification
Have any objects been described using human qualities? For instance: ‘The river argues and bellows its way downstream’.

Symbolism
Has a person, place or thing been used to represent something else? For instance, a canary in a cage can represent entrapment or a person refusing to reveal their true self.

Irony
Has a situation been described where the opposite of what is expected to happen, happens? For instance, it’s ironic that valuable, rare, raw materials can be extracted from industrial waste.

Sibilance
Has the writer used two or more words in a sentence that begin or end with the letter ‘S’? For instance, ‘senseless snobbery’ or ‘the waves were bliss.’ What effect does this have? How does it make the words and ideas come alive?

Onomatopoeia
Has the writer used any words that sound the same as the real sound, such as ‘bang’, ‘crash’ or ‘wallop’? For instance: ‘The test for hydrogen is the squeaky pop test’.

Repetition
Has the writer repeated ideas, sentences or phrases deliberately for effect? For instance: ‘Churchill was a man of great character, a man of wisdom and a man of authority’. What effect does this have?

The overall purpose of using literary techniques is to draw attention to words, phrases and sentences in a creative way. They make writing more exciting and interesting so that the events jump off the page. They also help to create pictures in your mind that make you want to read more. Pay particular attention to how these literary techniques have been used, as the aim is to emulate these in your own writing.

Active reading will soon become second nature

Don’t worry if you find some of the things in the checklists hard. Sometimes you won’t know what the theme is, or you’ll find hardly anything to check off. This is fine. The goal is for you to read actively and simply using the checklists will help. Eventually, this type of reading may become second nature. But for now, grab that pencil and keep annotating.

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