It’s often said that to be a good writer, you not only need to write a lot, but read a lot. You can learn plenty from reading good writing. And this is quite true. But frequently, what you learn is how not to do something.
For example, I recently finished re-reading one of my favorite novels, by one of my favorite authors. In fact, if I had to name one author who most influenced my writing, it would be this guy. I first read the book when I was still in high school and have read it several times, though it’s probably been twenty years since my last reading of it. However, after this experience, I’m hesitant to re-read other old favorites. Because this time, the book really bothered me.
I still admire the work for the ideas it put forth, the impact it had on so very many people (and on society, for that matter), and continue to view it as a remarkable novel. It is rightfully viewed as this author’s masterpiece (though it has never been my absolute favorite of his books). I’m not going to name the author or the book, because I don’t want to see a bunch of emails telling me that I’m an idiot, that it’s a phenomenal book, etc.
The thing is, in the decades since I last read this book, I’ve published four books of my own. I’ve become a better writer during that time, and now, looking at this novel with more experienced eyes, I see lots of problems with it, problems that – were they to come from my own hand – I would find mortifying.
Virtually the entire story, for example, is told via dialogue. There is very little description, very little exposition. This is not uncommon in this author’s work, and because these works influenced my younger self quite a lot, my early writing also had a lot of plot in the dialogue. But that’s not what dialogue is for. Sure, conveying some information pertinent to the plot via dialogue is okay, but it should be limited. In this book, it is anything but.
Another problem very common in this author’s works is that the protagonists are hardly ever seriously challenged. They encounter no major setbacks, and they always seem to be financially well off, so money is never the concern it is for most people. Without challenge, a character can’t grow, nor can the reader feel much suspense. The ultimate impact of the book will be lessened.
Being a writer essentially forces me to look at any story, whether books or movies, from a writer’s perspective. And as this example shows, it often reduces my enjoyment of the stories – even when the works themselves are praised, and by highly regarded writers.
So yes… read a lot and you’ll learn a lot. Just don’t be surprised when what you learn is how not to write.