Learn Writing by Reading: Likes & Dislikes
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Missed the intro to the Learn Writing by Reading series?
Every week in September, I’ll be putting up a new post about how you can learn to be a better writer just by reading your favorite books. As new posts go up, I’ll add the links for them below!
The easiest way to get started analyzing books is to start with your likes and dislikes.
I highly recommend you start here, especially if you’ve never done any novel analysis before (or if you struggled with it during high school English class). It’s easy to pay attention to our emotions about what we’re reading because we’re already used to it—we’re constantly telling people whether or not we liked a story or a certain character or particular authors.
I do suggest, as I mentioned in the introduction post, that if you’re new to book analysis, start with a book you’ve read before. Ideally, it’s a book that sparks some pretty strong likes or dislikes for you—a book you feel just “meh” about will be a bit harder to analyze at this stage.
With all that out of the way, let’s take a look at how you can use your likes and dislikes in books to become a better writer yourself!
First, take notice.
We’re not used to monitoring ourselves while we read. It takes practice to learn how to do this, and even more practice to get into the habit. So, especially for the first book you analyze, it’s helpful to build in a lot of breaks for self-reflection. Whenever you reach a natural break in the novel, like the end of a scene or chapter, take a moment to stop reading and think.
Ask yourself: Was there anything I liked or didn’t like in this scene/chapter? You may find it useful to highlight certain sentences or paragraphs in different colors—one color for likes and one for dislikes. Or, if you’re reading a library book or audiobook, you might want to keep a pen and notebook at your side so you can note the page numbers (or timestamps) of what you’re finding.
If there’s nothing you particularly liked or disliked, it’s okay to move on. You don’t have to strain yourself to have opinions on absolutely everything!
For now, it’s enough to just note your likes and dislikes without going any deeper. Remember, you’re just trying to train yourself to notice whenever you like or don’t like something at this point. And since you can’t analyze something you don’t even notice, it’s worth taking the time to really train yourself. It might take you half the book, or even the entire book, to get really good at this. That’s okay! We’re not going for speed here, we’re going for awareness.
Once you feel like you’ve got a decent list of likes and dislikes to work with, move on to the next step! (And again, it’s okay if it takes the whole book to get to this point.)
Next, dig deeper.
Take one of the likes or dislikes from your earlier reading and really sit with it. It could be a character, a story element, the setting, or even the author’s writing style. It doesn’t matter what your like or dislike is about—what matters is what you can learn from it.
Now that you’ve chosen something to analyze, it’s time to question it. A good first question is “Why do I like/dislike this?” Really try to get deep with your why! You may have to ask yourself the same question multiple times to really get to the bottom of it.
Here’s an example from a YA science fiction novel I read earlier this year: Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. I really liked Spensa, the main character. Why? Because she was spunky, vehement, and a bit quirky. Why do I like those character traits? Because I’m not as spunky or vehement as her. Why does not sharing those character traits make me like her? Because I can sort of live vicariously through her attitude. I actually kind of wish I was as spunky as she is. ← And boom, there’s my why. This analysis gives you important information about the types of things you might want to write about (or not want to write about, depending) in the future.
Once you’ve gotten to the bottom of your why, another important question to ask is “How did the author write about this like/dislike in the book?” Going back to my Skyward example: I liked Spensa because she’s spunky and vehement. How did Brandon Sanderson show me her spunkiness in the book? Well, he didn’t say “Spensa is spunky.” Instead, he showed me scenes where she’s exploring caves, all the while with an interior monologue that goes on about epic battles. When a test is rigged against her, she hangs in there and proves herself anyway, with sarcastic comebacks thrown in there, too. I could go on, but I think you get the idea, right? This type of analysis helps you recognize the techniques you’ll need to implement (or not implement, depending) the things you might use in your future writing.
Finally, ask yourself: “Did the author intend me to like/dislike this?” or “How does the author probably feel about this?” In the case of Spensa, it’s pretty obvious. The story very closely follows her point of view, and it’s a YA book. YA protagonists are usually (though not always) meant to be liked by readers, so I’m probably supposed to like Spensa. Are there people out there who don’t like her? Absolutely! But those people likely won’t finish the book, or at least won’t continue the series, meaning that they’re not the target audience.
Now, normally when analyzing books, we do try to keep the author’s intentions out of it, mostly because we have no way of actually knowing for sure what the author intended. But since you’re trying to learn to write here, it’s helpful to at least ponder what the author might have been thinking. It’s okay if you don’t come up with any concrete answers, though. Just the act of wondering puts you in the writer’s brain more.
Finally, take note.
You may have been taking notes up until now to help you streamline your thought process. (Which is a great idea!) But now it’s time to gather your conclusions and put them somewhere safe where you can refer back to them later. This might be a document on your computer, software like Evernote or Notion, or even just a nice notebook that you know you’ll take good care of.
In that safe place, you want to write down what you’ve learned from reading this book. It’s useful to write your likes and dislikes—especially the deeper ones you found through digging. For example, rather than writing “I like Spensa from Skyward,” I’d instead write “I like spunky protagonists because I wish I was spunky, too.” It’s also useful to write down techniques you’ve learned through your analysis. For example, I might write “Character technique: Use an adventurous spirit and snarky comebacks to show a character’s spunk.”
These notes help you become a better writer in a couple of different ways. First, they force you to really look closely at what goes into writing a story. A lot of this is probably stuff you’ve never noticed before, especially if you haven’t been paying attention! Second, the act of writing something down helps commit it to your mind more deeply. You’re putting stuff directly into your brain rather than hoping you’ll absorb it by accident. Finally, when you’re actually writing about one of these things and can’t figure out how to do it well, you can look back at these notes and remember, “Oh yeah! Brandon Sanderson showed me Spensa was spunky by doing x, y, and z.”
Eventually, you’ll have a whole encyclopedia of writerly likes and dislikes to look back on. And eventually after that, you’ll start to mentally analyze automatically, and you won’t have to pause and think so much—you’ll just know. Your brain will get that quick at it! And you may even get to the point where you don’t feel you need to take notes anymore!
In the meantime, do this with a few books you’ve read before, then switch to new books and see how it goes. I especially recommend doing this sort of analysis for genres you intend to write in, as it can help you identify what will make your own books stand out from the crowd. Happy reading!
And as always, if you need some editorial help, or if you’ve got any questions at all about this post, feel free to get in touch!