Being a Better Writer: Being a Better Reader

This post was originally written and posted July 24th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

So, being a better reader.

As we might guess from the title, this topic doesn’t just have to apply to writers. Being a better reader is something that most of us just take for granted, or hold to a flat, level interpretation—that interpretation being what our elementary-school educators would have called it: additional reading comprehension, moving up the grade levels, etc.

But learning to be a better reader in the context I wish to talk about isn’t about comprehension of words or whether the book you’re reading has chapters. And it isn’t in the context of looking for themes and using various classes of criticism, either—though such things are certainly helpful. No, what I’m referring to is the kind of reader that works with what they are reading and learns to approach the book from the author’s own angle.

See, all to often it can become easy to—to be perfectly honest—become a bit of a literary snob when we’re reading a lot of books. We start judging books on all sorts of criteria: how well they are written, how the characters act, the complexity of the plot, etc.

The problem starts when we begin judging a book on pretenses that the book is not written for or by, and begin to misjudge a well-written work because we’ve become too smart for our own good. Let me give an example.

For person X, it might be common knowledge that in order to safely shut down (and I’m coming up with this completely off the top of my head, so it may not be factually precise) an oil drilling rig, you have to execute a series of operations in a sequence of steps. They know that in order to prevent a catastrophic and dangerous explosion, these steps need to be done in a precise order.

Now suppose this person reads a book in which the heroes are on an oil drilling rig, go to shut it down, and do everything out of sequence. Person X, disgusted that the sequence that the author should have known about was not, declares the book to be not quite as good and sets the book down. Unfortunately for person X, not ten pages later, the effect of the incorrect steps is felt when the oil rig begins to—just as it should—explode in true action-adventure escape fashion.

The problem here is that the reader assumed themselves too smart for the book and outwitted themselves. And we see this happen with readers. They become so convinced that they understand what’s coming (or perhaps know better than the characters) that they dismiss the author because of it, not realizing that correct or not, what they should be doing is giving themselves a pat on the back and continuing reading.

Another example: A common complaint on low reviews of mystery novels (even the greats) is that the main characters are just not intelligent enough, because the case was clearly obvious. And while yes, the reader might have figured it out before the characters have, this is usually not because the mystery was too obvious or simple—though, in deference, this can be the case—but because the reader isn’t approaching the book on its own terms. A book is like a movie. We are introduced to a cast of characters, select scenes and events—all chosen to highlight areas of interest, areas that we should already be looking at. One of the tenants of writing is that everything you write needs to have a purpose in the story, be it to establish scene or otherwise. With this focus, from the reader’s point of view things will be fairly obvious. No author writes in a scene that doesn’t wind up being central to the plot. It either is a misdirection, a red herring, or—in some way—part of the plot.

But from the character’s point of view, things aren’t that way. There’s no “mystical narration” guiding them from scene to scene, drawing their attention to items of interest. To them, their day is more than just a collection of key scenes: It’s a 24-hour period with all sorts of events, related and not, jumbled together. We have the advantage of being able to sift through only the important stuff.

When we consider this, and look at the work on the merits of the character, suddenly a little leniency becomes a little more vital. It’s not that the main character isn’t intelligent, it’s that we ourselves are cheating.

Now, is there a line between poor plotting, writing, or research and our own selves building false expectations? Yes, there is. But that’s why as readers, we need to do better at realizing what those lines were. I don’t find it unreasonable that the show The Walking Dead ruined itself for me when out of a dozen characters trapped in a department store, absolutely zero objected to one of them stating that there was “nothing to block to doors with” because there were a dozen characters present, and one of them should have been able to make the connection between department store and barricades. One character making the same call, however? Especially if it were a soccer mom or an underpaid cubicle dweller? I’d find that a lot more believable.

Being a better reader means we must approach a book on the terms of the book itself. It means forgetting, for a moment, that we’re readers sitting far away in a comfortable chair or under the florescent lights of our boring night job. It means putting ourselves in the character’s shoes, putting ourselves in that scene, and then remembering that this character is not us. That’s why we need to cut authors some slack sometimes. Yes, there are poorly written books, or cases where the author didn’t do the research, but sometimes there are also cases where the author did do the research and is purposefully putting something out there that is wrong, either to disguise something, be an unstable narrator, catch your attention, or any number of other things. This is why I continue on for a ways even when I’m tempted to turn away from a rough spot in a book—because it may in fact be a case of the author purposefully setting up something for later.

Of course, as writers, we need to be thinking about this too. The best writers will think about this in advance and take this kind of situation into consideration. It’s not enough to be considering what our characters know. We have to consider what our readers know as well, in addition to what they might think and consider. I had to do this all through writing Rise and all through writing Dead Silver. As good writers, it is enough that we make sure everything works within our work. But as great writers, we also need to be keeping track of what our readers may be thinking, and when. This isn’t an easy task, and thankfully, you don’t have to be thinking about this to be a good writer. But it’s something that can help you continue to be good and perhaps move towards great.

So, what can you do? Well, as a reader, be more conscious of what you’re reading and the context of the world and characters. As a writer, pay attention to the same when you read, but also think about how certain scenes and ideas affect you. What tricks and techniques can you learn from the experiences you have while reading someone else’s work? What does how you or your friends react to a particular technique or story tell you about how own readers will react to a similar event in your own work?

This is the kind of thing that’s tricky for us to think about because it takes an effort to do, and we’re all going to see what we’re trying to look at through a slightly different lens.

But even then, working on our skills as readers can be just as beneficial to our path as a writer as putting the words down on paper can be.

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