This is part two of our Reading for Writing series: find part one here!
Okay, so you’ve made note of what moves you. You get a sense of how what you read makes you feel. You’re inspired to try and capture that sense of amazement, that shiver those words can impart down your spine. But how do you do that?
Practice! I hate to say it, but practice makes perfect.
Poets know this best of all. Many poets spend hours agonizing over the editing of a single line, and no one knows better than them how a single word can make all the difference. Like musicians, they often lean into what feels right – regardless of what anyone else might say about grammar, word choice, metaphor, or imagery.
So, practice like a poet!
Reading for Writing
1. Start with a single sentence – then build out the context
Say you want to write an impactful scene – maybe your heroine has recently discovered her will to try again. You could spend hours writing paragraphs upon paragraphs that describe exactly what inspired her to keep going, but I want you to try and capture it in a single sentence. It can be descriptive, simple, metaphorical, or short and to the point: “She took another step forward.”
Not convinced? Such a simple sentence may look ineffective here, but imagine if it stood alone after a paragraph detailing the brutal scenes of battle, or of a (literal) uphill struggle to the very peak of a dangerous mountain (yes, I do love Lord of the Rings, thanks for noticing).
The sentence itself can stand alone, too. But context makes it all the richer. Follow your intuition – it will (most likely) lead your writing down a powerful path.
2. Words, words, words
Word choice matters. If you find yourself exhausted by which word to use, don’t reach for the thesaurus – go with your gut. Think of those poets I mentioned: despite popular belief, they don’t all insert the most flowery language possible into their poems. Rather, they choose words that fit the rhythm and cadence of the poem, regardless of their presumed meaning or grammatical placement. Did you know that Shakespeare, for example, recorded over 1,700 words for the first time through his works – many of them being words he invented?
Now, I’m not telling you to write a new dictionary. But I am inviting you to go with the flow: write what you write, and don’t agonize over the word itself. That’s what editing (or your editor) is there for!
3. Remember the “body” of the work itself
Last time, we talked about writing’s effect on the human body. However, the writing itself is a body, of sorts – it has a skeleton, a structure that holds it all together. If all the components of the skeleton are there, the story will be able to move forward. If not, it may need some adjustment or some assistance.
Plotless novels exist. Poetry does not always have what we may think of as a story. A work of non-fiction may be as meandering and beautifully unpolished as a diary entry. But that does not mean these pieces do not have structure – there is a unique structure to every piece of writing, even if it is not always apparent.
And, if you’re still concerned – get in touch with a dedicated reader or readers willing to offer some feedback, or, of course, an editor!
I recommend the following books and individual works to help you challenge your understanding of the “body” of work (and your vocabulary, too):
- A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt (memoir)
- Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (“plotless” fiction)
- The Glass Essay by Anne Carson (narrative poetry)
- Thou by Aisha Sasha John (narrative poetry)
- When You Ask Me Where I’m Going by Jasmin Kaur (novel in verse)
- I Am the Horrible Goose That Lives in the Town by Daniel M. Lavery (satirical short fiction)
- Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva (novel in verse)
- Washes, Prays by Noor Naga (novel in verse)
These are just a few of many works that can be a source of inspiration and of help in understanding how reading can benefit your writing practice.
Next, we’ll discuss more in-depth how reading outside of your comfort zone can benefit you as a writer. Until then, happy writing (and reading)!