How and Why Reading Improves Writing

To master the art of writing we need to read. Whenever the words won’t flow, I grab my Kindle. Reading someone else’s story kickstarts my creativity, and like magic, I know exactly what I need to do in my WIP.

“Read” is the easiest writing tip, yet one of the most powerful. And here’s why.

 

READING BENEFITS OUR WRITING 

  • Reading strengthens our skills and storytelling abilities.
  • Reading helps us become more persuasive, which is an essential skill when pitching a book to an agent, editor, producer, etc.
  • Fiction reading helps us hone the skills to draw the reader into the story and engage the reader.
  • Nonfiction reading helps us learn how to condense research into an authoritative proposal. And ultimately, into a storyline.
  • Reading expands our vocabulary, improves grammar, and shows how to use words in context.
  • Reading helps us find the right word!

READING IMPROVES BRAIN HEALTH 

Narratives activate many parts of our brains. In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. — New York Times

Whenever participants read words like “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex (the part of the brain that processes smell) lit up the fMRI machine. Words like “velvet” activated the sensory cortex, the emotional center of the brain. Researchers concluded that in certain cases, the brain can make no distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Pretty cool, right?

4 TIPS TO READ WITH A WRITER’S EYE

1. Look for the author’s persuasion tactics.

How does s/he draw you in?

How does s/he keep you focused and flipping pages?

What’s the author’s style, fast-pace or slow but intriguing?

Does the author have beautiful imagery or sparse, powerful description that rockets an image into your mind?

2. Take note of metaphors and analogies.

How did the metaphor enhance the image in your mind?

How often did the author use an analogy?

Where in the scene did the author use a metaphor/analogy?

Why did the author use a metaphor/analogy? Reread the scene without it. Did it strengthen or weaken the scene?

In a 2012 study, researchers from Emory University discovered how metaphors can access different regions of the brain.

New brain imaging research reveals that a region of the brain important for sensing texture through touch, the parietal operculum, is also activated when someone listens to a sentence with a textural metaphor. The same region is not activated when a similar sentence expressing the meaning of the metaphor is heard.

A metaphor like “he had leathery hands” activated the participants’ sensory cortex, while “he had strong hands” did nothing at all.

“We see that metaphors are engaging the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses even though the metaphors are quite familiar,” says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University. “This result illustrates how we draw upon sensory experiences to achieve understanding of metaphorical language.”

 

3. Read with purpose.

As you read, study the different ways some writers tackle subjects, how they craft their sentences and employ story structure, and how they handle dialogue.

4. Recognize the author’s strengths (and weaknesses, but focus on strengths).

Other writers are unintentional mentors. When we read their work, they’re showing us a different way to tell a story—their way.

Ask, why am I drawn to this author? What’s the magic sauce that compels me to buy everything they write?

Is it how they string sentences together?

Story rhythm?

Snappy dialogue?

How they world-build?

Or all of the above?

I don’t know about you but I’m dying to jump back into the book I’m devouring. 🙂 What’s your favorite tip?

Wishing you a safe and happy Memorial Day! In between cookouts and family get-togethers, squeeze in time to read!

Looking for a new series to love?

FOR TODAY ONLY, all four Grafton County thrillers are on sale!

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This entry was posted in #writers, #writetip, #writetips, #writing, #WritingCommunity, reading, reading habits and tagged , , , , , , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series, Mayhem Series and Grafton County Series (Tirgearr Publishing) and is the true crime/narrative nonfiction author of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs (Rowman & Littlefield Group). Currently on submission, her latest true crime project revolves around a grisly local homicide. For the spring 2022 semester, Sue will be teaching a virtual course about serial killers at EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for the Central Virginia Chapter and National Sisters In Crime. Equally fun was when she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

46 thoughts on “How and Why Reading Improves Writing

  1. Good “advice” (if that’s the right word… 🙂 )

    I’ve found it to be true, myself, with music as well… when stymied on a song, listening to something similar – or REALLY completely different – can get things moving again relatively quickly…

    And to your point about reading improving brain health, there are some studies (though I can’t quote them), suggesting reading fiction can be effective in slowing some dementia / Alzheimer’s progressions by “flexing” the memory muscles required to keep up with a book-length narrative… though why this not as true for short stories, poetry, and non-fiction is a mystery… (and while knowing I’m already demented is one thing, the unknowns around the “A” word, especially given my dad’s battle with it, has my TBR stack – okay, pile – more heavily leaning towards mysteries and thrillers and such as opposed to magazines and histories, and how-to’s…)

  2. Great post, Sue, especially for this holiday morning. I can’t improve on George’s comments so I will be uncharacteristically quiet other than to thank you for a great post and to wish you a Happy Memorial Day.

  3. Great post, Sue. Thanks for all the tips, advice, and links. Metaphors (and similes) definitely stimulate emotion with readers. When middle-grade and high school beta readers reach a simile or metaphor in my stories, one of the smiling emojis is often placed in the comments, often without any written comment. Stir emotion and engage the reader.

    A safe and happy Memorial Day to you, too!

    • Exactly, Steve. It’s funny how emojis have replaced written words and break through language barriers. Might be a good post subject. 😉 Happy Memorial Day!

  4. Always enjoy your in-depth brain research, Sue. Fascinating that “leathery hands” activates the sensory cortex while “strong hands” does not.

    Editing/beta-reading books by my critique group helps me hone skills. My brain is challenged to find a more evocative way to express the meaning.

    Remembering our veterans today with gratitude.

  5. When I was starting out to learn the craft, I went to a used bookstore and got an armload of Grisham, Connelly, Koontz, and King and started reading intentionally. Mainly, when I got to a place where I had to turn the page, I’d ask myself, “What is he doing to make me do that?” It was an invaluable exercise.

    Then when I found an author whose style I enjoyed (e.g., Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald) I’d copy sections and read them over and over, just drinking it in.

    Happy Memorial Day, Sue.

    • “Grisham, Connelly, Koontz, and King” – sounds like a law firm… and maybe they are in respect to writing… 🙂

    • I did the same, Jim. I also found story reconstructions helpful. Now, when I find an author who’s writing speaks to me, I devour their entire backlist.

      Happy Memorial Day, Jim!

  6. Good Memorial Day morning, Sue. You tackled what I think is the most important part of this writing thing. From the man himself in On Writing, page 142, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s like.”

    • Totally agree, Garry. Several years ago, I was on a podcast with an author who thought she was just the cat’s meow, and I’d had about enough of her ego. So, when she said, “I love King, but I can’t read when I’m writing. I’ll lose my voice” I couldn’t control the snark.
      “So, you’re afraid you’ll start writing like Stephen King?” I said. “Yeah, that would be awful.”
      I don’t remember her name, but I bet she remembers mine! LOL

  7. A perfect post for Memorial Day. Metaphors are indeed powerful tools. In fact, the field of Embodied Cognition argues that all of our mental activity is grounded in the body. MRI scans reveal that when you read about running, the areas of the brain connected to running “light up.”

    Maybe that’s why my feet hurt after reading The Lord of the Rings. That was quit a hike.

    • Hahaha. I bet!

      The brain is an intriguing beast. There’s so much we still don’t understand. I hadn’t read the study about running. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing, Mike. Happy Memorial Day!

      • Right! The brain is the most complex thing we know of, and much that we know ain’t so. Someone compared brain scan studies to a person walking down a street at night and seeing a darkend building with one floor all lit up. They conclude that that floor is where an important executive meeting is being held, when actually it’s where the janitors are vacuuming the carpet.
        Many brain studies based on MRI are non-replicable.* They don’t measure neuron activity, but blood flow, and their results are largely statistical, based on averages of many test subjects.
        I got heavily into psychology to write my WWII historical novel. My recent studies focus on brain structure theory and associated literature. As “Dr. Jekyll” said, “[M]an is not truly one, but truly two.” Stevenson based his novel on actual, if anecdotal, studies.

        * To be fair, as much as half of recent medical studies also can’t be replicated. Dozens of studies are based on fraudulent images. (See “Elisabeth Bik.”) Science is in deep trouble, and few seem to know, fewer to care.

  8. Oh, yeah…I love it when I’m given permission to read! I believe heaven is going to be one giant library, with nothing but nature outside of it…and two trees and a hammock with my name on it. (I’m sure there’ll be more trees dotting the landscape for y’all…maybe we can stake a claim in a particular spot…)

    Thanks for a great post, Sue. I’ve copied and pasted those tips into my file. Reading for pleasure is pure heaven; reading with intention is pure heaven + some smarts. 🙂 And the funny thing is, reading in a different genre than I write in seems to stir the creative juices more. Win-win!

    • I share your view of heaven, Deb! I used to remark to library colleagues that one life wasn’t enough time for all the books waiting to be read.

    • Love your version of Heaven, Deb. Save me a hammock!

      You make a good point about reading widely. I couldn’t find a study that focused on a genre switch in reading vs. writing, but reading in general, regardless of genre, has multiple benefits. Maybe when you read outside your chosen genre it allows you to view the story in a different way.

      Happy reading (and writing)!

      • I think you nailed it, Sue. Reading a true crime novel, or one of JSB’s legal thrillers could potentially give me new insight into my somewhat suspenseful women’s fiction novels in the works right now.

        And a nod to Garry, who helped me get a description of a crime scene from the perspective of an ME correct. Thanks again, Garry!

  9. My late friend and office colleague, Larry Sanders, a bestselling author of hardcover mysteries (The First Commandment, The Anderson Tapes etc, etc) back in the day, used to read a book a day. Literally. He bought paperback mysteries by the handful—in those days wire racks were in drugstores, supermarkets so paperbacks were very easy to find. Larry’s books are now being written by successors, the originals are now in e-book versions and still sell. He was a terrific writer and proof of the power of reading.

    • His books were quite popular at the libraries I worked at. I’m in awe of his reading a book a day–I’m happy if I can read two novels a week 🙂

    • Ruth — I *wish* I could read a book a day. Just the thought of going on multiple adventures per week makes me giddy. My “record” is two days, but I had no time to do anything else. A novel per week is much more realistic. Happy Memorial Day!

      • Sue — He was reading paperbacks, probably mostly originals which were shorter then than today. Plus, Larry had been an editor for years…editors *learn* to read fast. They have to — or they’re out of a job.

  10. Happy Memorial Day, Sue. Thanks for sharing your reading tips. I agree, reading is vital for brain health, and for development as a writer.

    Read with purpose has certainly helped me become a better writer. Seeing how another writer creates emotion in the reader was very instructive. The same for tension on the page and a dozen other things.

    It’s delicate dance, to be sure. I want to enjoy the story, but I also want to see how the author made it work. I’m at the point now where I can do both, and enjoy seeing how the author made it work as much as enjoying the story.

    Hope you have a fine day!

    • Thanks, Dale!

      Yes, I agree. Learning to read with purpose while still allowing yourself to escape into the story takes time to master. When the shift occurs and we read like a writer, the veil parts, the writer’s craft on full display. Doesn’t get any better than that.

      Happy Memorial Day!

  11. Good post, Sue. Reading helps me get into writing and I have comfort reads, including Agatha Christie. I find her descriptions of even minor characters inspiring.

  12. In my early days of teaching writing, I realized that looking at someone else’s work and asking “Why isn’t this working?” is a surprisingly good way to understand the problems in your own writing. That’s why trading critique manuscripts with other writers or continuing on with a trainwreck book has value.

  13. Happy Memorial Day, Sue!

    Reading good books is a delight in itself, and it has greatly influenced my writing. My first books were developed as I was reading other mysteries and noted how the authors handled scenes and plots. Now I am drawn to authors who have shown the way.

    I love metaphors! They’re like hooks to hang one’s understanding of difficult concepts on. Parables are really a form of metaphor, aren’t they?

    • Happy Memorial Day, Kay!

      I love a good metaphor, too. Parables are different. As defined by Dictionary.com: a parable is a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.

  14. I stayed up past midnight last night finishing Koontz’s The Forbidden Door, the 4th of 5 Jane Hawk novels. Every turn of the page I marveled at how he controlled the pace with chapter length, changes in POV characters, plot-lines, and even tense (certain characters where written in present tense while others in past tense but all in tight POV). I jumped into my WIP this morning with a fresh perspective.

    • Love when that happens, Douglas! I experienced the same thing recently when I dove into a new true crime book. I couldn’t get to my keyboard fast enough. Best feeling ever. 😀

  15. Excellent post, Sue. As a dedicated fiction editor and a voracious (but slow and careful) reader of fiction, I’m constantly taking mental notes of the techniques of talented authors to spin a great yarn and keep readers eagerly turning the pages. I try to encourage my author clients to use the same techniques, many of which are mentioned (with examples from best-selling fiction) in my three writing guides.
    As to what makes me read more by a particular author — although I love a great plot with lots of juicy details to take me right there, to me it’s more about the characters, especially the protagonist, and I want to know all his/her inner thoughts, worries, and fears, so the deeper the point of view the better! I’m off to buy your books right now! 🙂

    • I’m with you, Jodie. When I fall for a character, I fall hard and will follow them through the entire series, regardless of length. Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee, for example. Took a while to read all 26 novels, but what a ride! These days, deep POV is a must for me. Otherwise, I can’t connect with the characters.

      Thank you! Happy reading! 😀

  16. Sue, you pegged it again with a pointed reminder that we read to write. Thank you.

    Two nights ago I finished a Robert B. Parker after falling in love again with his imagery and clever juxtaposition of opposites. And then I ran the epub format through an app called Sigil, copy/pasted two particular chapters into a Word doc, and swapped his characters with my own. This little exercise was my first try at dissecting a master’s work.

    The reason? In the midst of reading the story (The Catskill Eagle) Spenser is literally and figuratively stuck, so Parker introduces three levels of cops as an odd, unwelcome assist. The reading process jogged my writer’s brain and I saw a parallel to my WIP action, where I was stuck for days. BLAM!

    Yesterday was a writing marathon. So reading paid off bigtime for me. As the “Great One” often quipped, “How sweet it is.”

    • Love when that happens! It’s amazing, right? I pick up my Kindle any time I get stuck, and boom — I can’t get back to the keyboard fast enough. The other day I didn’t want to stop reading, so I filled my phone with notes for my WIP as I flipped page after page after page… Worked great.

      Happy writing, dissecting, and reading, Dan!

  17. What a timely post, Sue! Just this weekend, I re-read Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” and “Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man.”

    During my initial read back in the 80s, I don’t remember realizing that these stories are mainly “told” rather than “shown.” (In “Fried Green Tomatoes,” an old woman recalls, through a continuing monologue, the adventures of the two most influential people in her life. “Daisy Fay” is a series of journal entries by a young girl, revealing her unsettled and eventful life.) But this time through, I thought about why this approach worked so well for the author.

    I decided that it’s because she drops the reader right into the lives of such intriguing characters that it doesn’t matter. The adventures and characters are over the top just enough to make us wish we’d been right there. The troubles in the character’s lives keep us hoping they’ll find a way to survive. And the side characters and richly detailed settings help create a world we would recognize if we walked down their imaginary streets. The dialogue reflects cultural and regional usage without grating on the reader’s ear.

    Now I have to go back and analyze the places in my WIP where I do revert to “telling” and make sure they still manage to keep the reader breathless to continue.

    • Excellent analysis, Suzanne! When you first read the books you must have read like a reader. But now, you’re reading like a writer. You go, girl. Happy Memorial Day!

    • Story-telling via narration has gone out of fashion, but is otherwise still perfectly legitimate. There are places where a half page of good narrative can replace two pages of “showing.” Do it. Brevity counts.

  18. Read books twice. Before reading, turn off your editor brain*. Read first strictly as a reader, making sparse notes, if any. Then read from a writer’s POV, making more extensive notes.

    I recently read “The Goldfinch,” the first novel I’ve read in many years, other than “The Uncommon Reader.” I took no notes, but both were instructive.

    * if you can

    • Great tip! Reading a book twice can illuminate many things we missed the first time. My inner editor doesn’t possess an off switch, but I do try to ignore her while reading. I’d much rather revel in the skill of the author. 🙂

  19. I have been devouring books as long as I can remember. My mother told me I was “reading” books before I could actually read. She discovered I had memorized entire books and then “read” them back to anyone or anyone who would listen. She knew I wasn’t actually reading since I was often on the wrong page.

    I read voraciously. Shorter books, I read in a day, longer books, two days. I don’t read all day, but during breaks between other tasks and in the evenings. We don’t watch TV except for a few nights a week when my husband and I have a movie night. We don’t have cable or satellite – by choice. So I usually spend my evenings reading.

    I can’t imagine not reading. I always have my kindle with me, ready to pull out anytime the opportunity arises. I read On Writing and was tickled that reading was a requirement to being an author. How does it get better than combining two passions and finding out they compliment each other?

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