Want to Be a Better Writer? Read Like One.

Image: Dory Kornfield, Flickr

Image: Dory Kornfield, Flickr

Beyond the fun of it, reading writers you admire is a great way to unlock your own literary potential. You don’t have to be an English Lit major. You don’t have to write a tiresome book report. These three simple steps will get you reading and improving as a writer.

Step One: Study the masters
When you read fiction you admire, take a moment to look at a line or passage that appealed to you. Does it present a familiar idea in a refreshing way? How? Does the writer use contrasting elements in a way that catches you off guard? Which ones? Does the passage reveal character while advancing the novel’s larger theme?

Whatever made you stop, write it down.

When I read Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I used this step on the following line.

“No amount of wishful thinking was changing the cold hard fact that she was a teenage girl living in the Dominican Republic of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated.”

There are so many amazing things going on here but what I find especially instructive is the way Diaz captures problems of society, culture and politics in this young girl’s thoughts and desires. He grounds his novel in greater significance by linking this character’s personal concerns with national ones. Personally, I’m grabbing this technique for my own novel-in-progress about a Korean girl trafficked into San Francisco.

Step Two: Create a challenge based on your masters
Now that you’ve jotted your notes on why a particular line or passage moves you, create a writing prompt based on those same strategies. Word it in a way that goes beyond the specific novel. That way, you can use this prompt for other times you’re stuck, other projects, or to help other writers.

For example, based on the Diaz line above, I created this prompt: “Cast a character’s desire in the context of her generation and nation’s or diaspora’s desires.”

Step Three: Write Like Hell
You didn’t think you could get away without this step, did you? Based on the prompt you created, generate new material or rework some old ones.

I wanted my prompt to enrich my character Soo, a college-bound girl who eventually becomes a victim of sex trafficking. To encapsulate her South Korean context, this is what I wrote from her point of view:

“Mine is a generation in which we girls are selling our bodies online by the time we are in middle school; a generation dedicated to earning money, but only in order to look down at others from our cosmetically enhanced nose bridges; a generation unlike our mothers because we are headed for college, but only in hopes of batting our lasered, double-eyelids at eligible bachelors.”


About Mei Li Ooi

Writer. Editor. Diet Rebel.

2 Responses to “Want to Be a Better Writer? Read Like One.”

  1. Aurelio Frabotta January 2, 2015 6:43 am #

    This is a really good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere. Simple but very precise information… Appreciate your sharing this one. A must read article!

  2. Latosha Herl January 6, 2015 12:32 pm #

    Wow! This could be one particular of the most helpful blogs We have ever arrive across on this subject. Basically Magnificent. I’m also a specialist in this topic so I can understand your effort.

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