If you want to improve writing skills, you have to become a prolific reader.
However, most people don’t fully appreciate how much they could accelerate their skills if they not only read in great volume but read with a specific process and clear goals.
During a keynote speech at the 2016 Festival of Writing, C.L. Taylor strongly recommended analysing your favourite books as a method of learning, saying it was the one thing that created the biggest leap forward in her own writing.
Following disheartening negative feedback from her early work suggesting that she should forget about being a writer, C.L. Taylor’s books “have sold in excess of a million copies, been number one on Amazon Kindle, Kobo, iBooks and Google Play and have been translated into over 25 languages.”
The same principles apply across writing sectors. In Michael Hague’s Writing Screenplays That Sell, he states “as a serious screenwriter, you can no longer afford to regard movies as something you only do when you have a date on Saturday night.”
He instructs budding screenwriters to watch two movies per week and gives a detailed checklist “to make the process of watching films as informative as possible.”
In this article I will offer some guidelines drawing on Taylor's and Hague’s advice for best practice analysis and add thoughts from my own experience.
Which Book to Analyse?
Analysing your favourite book is a great place to start if you want to improve your writing skills.
However, don’t stop there. Analyse as many books as you can. Start in the genre/topic you want to write in.
Then try reading from different genres for variety and to learn what sort of techniques are universal.
And remember, there’s plenty to be learned from worst practice as well as best practice, so don’t dismiss that.
About Reading Blurbs/Reviews/Summaries
This is the one area where advice varies depending on if you are writing fiction or non-fiction.
For fiction writers, it is best to go in “blind,” not knowing anything about the story in advance. This allows you to fully experience the surprises and emotional peaks and troughs as the writer intends.
However, for non-fiction, you can learn a great deal from seeing how the writer has broken down the content and summarised it in enticing, clear sections in the table of contents .
Read the First Time for Fun
There’s no need to think about analysis the first time you read through. Just experience the book as a natural reader.
Annotate, Annotate, Annotate
Get a set of coloured markers, pencils, pens and mini sticky notes and put aside what you learned at school about never writing on books.
On the second (and third and fourth) read throughs you need to write ALL OVER that book.
Obviously, if it’s your favourite book, you’ll probably need to buy a second copy just for the purposes of annotation.
Tip: When annotating a book with multiple prints, try to get the one with the most spacious typesetting. Spacious margins and line heights are of real benefit here.
Analyse Your Emotional Reaction
Think about which parts of the book engrossed or entertained you most.
In fiction, which parts moved you most? When did you feel most engaged with the characters? When were you on the edge of your seat?
Taylor talked about how she noticed her favourite writer always used the rule of three when setting up and delivering punchlines.
What techniques does your favourite writer use to create humour?
Create fascinating characters?
In non-fiction, which sections did you find most enlightening?
Did particular real-life examples or metaphors lodge in your mind?
What parts did you feel affected your world view or understanding of the topic?
Did anything make you take action to change your life or business?
Step Back and Look at the Bigger Picture
Look at how the book is structured on a large scale. Is the setup effective?
Do you see familiar themes?
Are those themes used to good effect? Can you see where they fall down or how they could be improved?
Do points in the book falter? Can you determine how the story or topic is set up, developed and concluded?
Get Closer and Examine the Fine Details
Select a single chapter/page/paragraph/sentence. How are each of these constructed? Compare them to neighbouring ones.
Are there patterns? Does the writer use the same constructions over and over, or do they vary?
What is the balance of description and action (fiction) or explanation and examples (non-fiction).
Finally Words On Improving Writing Skills
The pointers above are only a rough starting point for those who want to improve writing skills.
As you begin to practice in-depth reading, you will see what jumps out at you – and you’re bound to notice different things during subsequent read throughs.
Make your own checklist for analytical reading and follow your nose to see where it takes you.
Once you’ve mastered the art of reading to learn how to write, you’ll be able to enrich and improve your own writing by applying techniques used by those at the top of their game.
If you’ve found this article useful then you might want to check out the Novel Factory blog or the Novel Writing Roadmap, a step-by-step guide to writing a novel.
If you have any questions you can get in touch with me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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