“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Readers may recognize this bit of wisdom from Stephen King’s wonderful book about craft, On Writing. (And if you haven’t read it yet, scurry out to do so. He is a master and it will inspire you.)
Back when the pandemic first started (you guys, that was more than two years ago; can you believe that?), I heard from a startling number of authors that they couldn’t write. The uncertainties and fears and chaos of this new unsettling reality made it impossible for many to focus on trying to create stories of their own.
Most writers I talked to weren’t necessarily panicked that that meant they were no longer writers, or that their creative spark had deserted them and might never come back. They trusted that it would…one day, when the world settled back to “normal” (pause for laughter here).
But when a creative isn’t creating, it can be painful—as if a part of us is numb or has been amputated. As if a constant companion inside us has gone silent or been snuffed out. As if an inner voice is struggling to be heard but can’t make a sound. We lose something intrinsic about ourselves.
Creating is a universal human impulse—I believe that with all my soul—but some have it heartbreakingly stifled early in life and may lose that glorious creative, self-expressive instinct.
Those of us who pursue our creativity come to rely on it, to consider it an essential part of who we are. When it’s gone we lose a part of ourselves.
But go back and read the above quote again. King’s mandate for being a writer lists two requirements—and writing isn’t even the first one. Reading is.
How Reading Affects Your Writing
What were most of us doing during the pandemic (when we weren’t learning to bake sourdough and start gardens)? Many of us plowed through the books that had piled up in our TBR piles. We binge-watched TV shows and movies.
Writers might not have been creating stories amid all those difficulties, but they were consuming them. It’s what we do—what probably seduced most of us into this field in the first place: the desire to create our own stories like the ones we already loved.
But casual pleasure reading (or watching) isn’t the kind of reading I think King is talking about. You can spend a lifetime doing that and still never get any closer to improving or mastering your own skills as a writer. That’s like reading a math textbook and believing we understand calculus without ever working through the equations.
You have learn how to assess and diagnose what makes those works successful (or not) with an objective analytical eye. That’s not just a core skill for editors to learn—it’s the bedrock of every skill a writer must master.
- It teaches in practical, concrete ways what elements go into creating a successful story. Authors can (and many do) spend a lifetime not just practicing their craft, but studying it. But esoteric knowledge of storytelling elements isn’t as effective as seeing them actually employed in situ, any more than a surgeon can master her skill by simply reading medical textbooks. She has to observe actual surgeries, dissect cadavers, and eventually get her hands inside a living body to truly understand how to perform those procedures herself. Studying the concepts offers a solid foundation, but it doesn’t teach how to use them. Learning how to analyze stories does.
- It shows not just what craft elements are essential to good story, but how to execute them. Once you learn to see the essential elements of story in action and how they contribute to (or detract from) a story’s effectiveness, learning how to analyze story lets you trace back exactly how the author achieved those ends, or failed to—to understand granularly and concretely, on the page, just how the sausage was made.
- It teaches how to assess what’s actually on the page. One of the main challenges for a writer in editing his own work is being able to assess how effectively he is conveying on the page the story that may feel so real and fully developed in his head. When you’re neck-deep in your story it can be almost impossible to accurately gauge how well it may come across to readers: Authors know their stories and characters so well that they may unconsciously “fill in the gaps” between their vision and its execution. The easiest way to learn how to gain that analytical objectivity in your own writing is by learning to do it with other people’s, where it’s already built-in. Mastering that ability—how to take on an editorial mindset—is one of the most important, foundational skills a writer must have. Writing is rewriting—but you can’t effectively do that until you know what may need to be rewritten, and why…and how.
Reading (and watching) other people’s stories simply for pleasure without also engaging in deliberate, meticulous analysis of them may inspire ideas and motivation, but it’s not going to do a lot to hone your skills as a writer.
That’s not to say you have to completely master the skills of a professional editor—but you can and should learn how an editor approaches story with that objective, analytical eye as one of the foundational skills of being a writer. I would venture that it’s the most important skill a writer can develop. As Stephen King also says in the same book, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Those tools are what you gain by knowing how to analyze story like an editor. When the pandemic first hit and I heard so many writers struggling, I created a course to “train their editor brain,” and I offered it for free to every writers’ organization, group, and conference I knew of.
Here are the basic components of my approach:
- “Feel” the story: This is the equivalent of a good editor’s first cold read of a manuscript, the one that orients us to the overall story. On my initial read I’m not trying to pick out anything specific; I’m just immersing myself in the author’s vision as it comes across on the page. Then I simply sit with my general impressions of it, with a series of overview questions I ask myself about how I reacted in various places and how effective the story felt to me overall and in key areas. (I list a lot of these questions in Intuitive Editing, in the “Approaching the Edit” chapter.)
- Identify the key components that make it effective (or not): Once you know how you felt about the story, you use that information to track back to exactly where in the manuscript those reactions and impressions were elicited, and why—what made you feel a certain way in a certain area of the story? (I talk more about this in this recent article on Jane Friedman’s blog.)
- Analyze how the author achieved those ends (or failed to): Now you keep dissecting, parsing out specifically, concretely what in a scene, a line, an action, a word yielded your reaction. In other words, how did the author create a certain impression or response or effect in the reader? How did they convey a specific story element—like character or stakes, tension and suspense, etc.?
This is a version of the techniques I use as an editor with every single manuscript I work on—and it’s readily adaptable for writers even if you don’t have years of editorial education and apprenticeship behind you. You use yourself, as a reader, as the best barometer for the story’s effectiveness, and follow your own reactions back to the writer’s technique that engendered them.
And once you learn to see that, friends, on that foundational, granular level, it becomes a part of you and your own writing. All those esoteric storytelling concepts you’ve probably, if you’re like most authors, spent years studying become part of the fabric of your psyche, and tools in your toolbox readily available to you.
That means you can let go of any writing “rules” or dogma or prescribed writing systems and just write when you’re writing, knowing that you’ve been honing your skills and instincts with all that training. And when the time comes to edit and revise your work, you’ll also have the skill and experience of slipping into those objective perspectives to make your self-editing most effective.
If you want to dive deeper into how to learn to analyze story with these techniques, with plenty of specific examples, join me and Jane on Wednesday, July 13, at 1 p.m. EST for our 90-minute “Analyze Story Like an Editor” webinar ($25, playback available for registrants).
It’s your turn, authors. Tell me—do you already read and watch stories this analytically, or are you taking in stories more as a lay reader or casual reviewer? Have you tried dissecting someone else’s story in this way? Did it show you more than you generally can see in your own writing? Have you analyzed other authors’ work as part of a crit group, and how does that reflect on your own self-editing?