Reading to Write

The other day my friend Joe Novara and I were sitting on my deck, looking out at the boats on the river, talking about what we were reading and why. Before Joe left, I asked him to write something about why he felt reading other authors’ books helped a writer. This is what he sent.

Reading to Write

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, and corporate culture. It never hurt to have clients recognize themselves and feel at home in a brochure, training manual, or videoscript.

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 [standing 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. 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. I’ll make a point of reading Daniel Woodrell or Julia Spencer-Fleming’s backlist or Donna Leon’s fine eye for Italian body language for ways to round out my story arc.

I find myself noticing references to location and tell myself to let the readers get somewhere and be somewhere specific whether they actually know the juncture of 131 and M43 or not. I look for the hundred different ways to describe facial reactions and gestures then borrow or rephrase them—he lifted his chin in assent. And, oh yeah, I’m reminded to include smells, sounds, tastes. Not to mention the work of clearly picturing a room and taking a few sentences to describe it as a character enters. I love to be startled by a powerful metaphor and 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, I’m being 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.

Joe Novara

Joe Novara, a retired corporate trainer and writing instructor, has his nine book YA series hosted on, a site for young adults with reading difficulties. An adult novel, Come Saturday…Come Sunday, is available through Amazon Come Saturday, Come Sunday


FYI: Saturday, September 16th, Maris Soule will be at the Tamarack District Library in Lakeview, Michigan from 10 am – 1 pm. If you’re in the area, stop by and say hello


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20 Responses to Reading to Write

  1. Sue Myers says:

    Maris, you always have the best posts!

  2. Great advice! I love the comment, “Lean prose is good but this is anorexic.” Some writers are verbose, but I tend to lean the other way, so I’ll keep this as a reminder to include important details. Thanks so much!

  3. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful post! I believe that by reading books we do learn a lot!

  4. Good advice, Maris. I always read from other writers, especially those different from me and outside my general interests. It’s another way to be challenged as a writer.

  5. Excellent post. I know these things but needed the reminder right now. Thanks!

  6. An excellent post. We improve our own writing by reading other writers, particularly the most talented ones, whether classic or contemporary.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, you are right, but I’ve learned from unskilled writers, too. I remember an editor telling me I had a character crying too much. I rewrote the scenes so there was less crying, but I wasn’t convinced what I had was bad, not until I read a book where the mc was always crying (about as much as mine had been) and it was terrible. So I learned from her mistake.

  7. HiDee Ekstrom says:

    So true! Reading teaches me what I want to do, and what I don’t want to do as well. Great post!

  8. Never stop reading and you’ll never stop learning!
    Great post. Thanks for sharing.
    Good luck and God’s blessings

  9. Man at the Helm, Hilllbilly Elegy, Getting it out There, Nancy Gideon; The Handmaid’s Tale, Any Dream Will Do, Debbie Macomber; Into the Water, Donna Leon, Earthly Remains, The Blind Assassin, Jim the Boy, Autumn. Now I see why I’m not writing. Reading is eating hours.

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