Another Voice On Reading to Learn

Today my good friend and fellow writer, Joe Novara, is my guest blogger as I enjoy a visit from my daughter. A few weeks ago Joe mentioned how he’d been learning some new ways of expressing ideas from reading other writers. That led to the blog I posted last Wednesday: Read to Learn.

Joe Novara

Joe Novara

I asked Joe to expand on that idea and let me (and you) know some of the things he learned. So take it away, Joe.

Thanks, Maris.
When I did technical writing for a living, I would make a point of surfing the printed copy a company put out about itself. I was looking for definitions, key words, pacing, tone, corporate culture. It never hurt to have clients recognize themselves and feel at home in a brochure, training manual or video script.

Now that I’m retired and writing fiction, I get to choose my own voice which is much more fun…if less lucrative. Instead of reading annual reports and brochures and SOPs (standard operating procedures), I’m rumbling through my rag-bag of memories for scraps and bits to piece together into stories and books. But then, in the middle of long sections of story-flow I find my characters repeating the same body language over and over—he winked, she grimaced, he glared back. Or I find my plot line advancing, but going very fast. Way too fast.

As someone in my writing group once remarked, “Lean prose is good but this is anorexic.” So when I’m looking for a way to put some meat on the bones of the story, I’m back to surfing other people’s writing. This time I’m reading well-crafted fiction. These books don’t have to be great, classical literature or best-seller titles I’d find in a rack at an airport. But I know when an author is talking to me beyond the story. I’m learning from the writing itself.

* For ways to round out my story arc, I’ll make a point of reading Daniel Woodrell’s or Julia Spencer-Fleming’s backlist. In their books and others I find myself noticing references to location, and I tell myself to let the readers get somewhere and be somewhere specific, whether the reader actually knows the juncture of US-131 and M-43 or not.

* I look for the hundred different ways to describe facial reactions and gestures, then I borrow or rephrase them—he lifted his chin in assent.

* And, oh yeah, I’m reminded to include smells, sounds, tastes. All of the senses.

* Reading other writers’ works gives me ways to clearly and concisely, in a few sentences, describe a room as a character enters.

* I love to be startled by a powerful metaphor and be challenged to create my own, to look for historical anchor points, with references to cars and music and movies. To include the weather and how it impacts action.

* Basically, by reading other works, I’m reminded that a novel is not a series of flash fiction episodes.

I suppose I could buy Writing for Dummies or take a creative writing class, but I don’t go to school anymore and I find it much more enjoyable to learn as I read a well written book.

Thank you, Joe.

Joe Novara is a retired instructional specialist and college adjunct instructor. He lives in Michigan, and all of his books, including Middle Reader and YA novels, short story collections, plays, an adult novel and a memoir can be found as ebooks at:

Or visit Joe at:


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8 Responses to Another Voice On Reading to Learn

  1. Melissa Keir says:

    Thank you Joe and Maris for the tips. Reading is one of the best things we can do as writers.

  2. Paula says:

    Maris, you know I’m a definite believer in reading to learn writing. Thanks for another voice that impresses that fact of its worth.
    I subscribed to One Story, a magazine which includes one short story each month because of my interest in writing fiction but having no experience in publication (yet!). I find I’m marking up the copies like an editor. The stories are of high quality, but I’m finding the exercise of ‘editing’ valuable as well.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I’ve heard several very successful writers tell how, when they began, they took published books (especially those written by well-respected writers) and marked them with colored highlighters, a different color for narrative, dialogue, action, description, or pov changes. Doing so helped them learn successful ways of blending each.

  3. Great tips! I feel like a sponge when I’m reading favorite authors, trying to soak up all the nuances that make their books so engaging. The challenge is in putting those ideas back into my own writing.

    • Maris Soule says:

      So true, HiDee. I don’t want to copy another writers voice, but there are some writers I envy. They have a true talent in how they pull me into the story.

  4. Carole Price says:

    I don’t read a book the same as before I was published. I “edit” as I go and look for different ways to express emotions/body language to avoid the same common phrases.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Oh, Carole, your comment reminded me that that happened to me once I started writing. Whereas I used to read for enjoyment, now (even though I might be enjoying a book) my internal editor is always on. Not only do I learn what to do, but also what not to do. At least what I don’t enjoy seeing in a book.