Learn Writing by Reading: Style & Mechanics
Want to read the rest of the Learn Writing by Reading Series?
Every week in September, I’ve been posting about how to become a better writer through reading books you already like. This is the last post in the series, so here’s the links to the rest if you missed any!
Your unique writing style does not develop in a vacuum.
I’ve spoken with many writers who try to avoid reading the work of others because they’re afraid they’ll somehow absorb and accidentally mimic someone else’s writing style. And yes, this can happen, especially if you’re a brand-new writer. The thing about writing styles, though, is that they’re a huge conglomeration of everything we’ve read in the past, a dash of what we learned in school, and our own personal writing preferences. So don’t be afraid of accidentally mimicking someone! This is all part of the process of finding your own style!
Now, I’m not saying to copy another author’s writing style on purpose. That is definitely not what we’re trying to do here. Instead, this exercise will encourage you to notice the writing that calls out to you, so that you can be inspired by it when it comes time to writing your own novels.
It is extremely, extremely important to read as widely as possible for this exercise. Don’t stick to your tried-and-true favorites (though those can be good, too!) or your comfort genres. Swerve out of your usual reading lane and pick up some books that seem intriguing from other genres. It’s truly the best way to avoid ending up sounding like everyone else in that genre, or worse, like a poor man’s *insert famous and wildly successful author here*.
This exercise also takes more time than all the others in the series so far—maybe even more time than all of them combined! Rather than just three or four books, you’ll want to be reading dozens, even hundreds! Your personal writing style is something that gets developed and refined over your entire writing career, so don’t hold back at the start. (The nice thing about this one, though, is you can do it while you’re working on other active reading exercises, too!)
Find the best lines.
While you’re reading any book, keep an eye out for lines that hit you. Any time you think, “Wow, what a beautiful description” or “I wish I was this funny” or “This describes that feeling perfectly,” save those lines.
You can highlight or tab them or copy-paste them into a special document, of course, but I actually recommend writing them down somewhere by hand. Yes, by hand, if you're able. (Or reciting them aloud yourself, or using your own hands to type them—whatever your personal abilities allow!) This is going to sound a little woo-woo, but bear with me: Reproducing an impactful line gives you a chance to feel what it feels like to write that line, to put pen to paper and make something that impacts you. Even if that line isn’t yours, you’ll remember the feeling, and you’ll remember the line and its impact better. Something about the tactile sensations involved in writing by hand can really leave a bigger impression.
Don’t just note lines, either—note words, too! Run across a word you’ve never seen before while reading? You don’t have to look it up immediately, but do take note of it so you can check the dictionary later. You can also start a bank of words that you just like. I actually have an entire document on my PC filled with words I’d love to have an excuse to use in writing someday. (One of them is flummadiddle. Obviously, I like words that sound a little silly.)
Notice distinguishing features.
This one takes a little bit more thought than just collecting lovely lines and words, but also take some time to notice some details that define a particular author’s style. If the author’s name was not on the book, how would you know whose book you are reading?
Terry Pratchett’s books, for example, contain a combination of dry humor, ironic observations of modern times, goofy statements, and the occasional line that explains with absolute, open, and heartfelt truth what life actually is. He gets you giggling on one line and pondering your existence the next.
As you’re reading, see if you can notice these types of style elements:
Word choices. Does the author use a lot of long and elegant words? Short and direct words? (Silly-sounding words?)
Sentence length and flow. Do they tend toward choppy sentences? Really long, flowing sentences? Lots of fragments?
Types of description. Do they give lots of sensory descriptions, or do they stick more with told details?
Endings. Do they always have a happy ending? Or do their stories end sadly? Do they build in a lot of cliffhangers?
Character types. Do their main characters all have similar personalities? Or maybe come from similar backgrounds?
Tone. Does the author write darker, scarier stuff? Happy-go-lucky stuff? Lots of drama?
There are so many other things you’ll notice while reading, but these will get you started. And of course, if you notice something that you want to do in your own writing (like mastering cliffhangers, for example), then make a note and search out other authors who do it well!
Grammar books are great, but novels are way more fun.
You can also pick up a lot about basic writing mechanics by reading. If you want to read novels to help you study mechanics, though, I highly recommend sticking to rereads in the beginning. The last thing you want is to get so caught up in the story that you forget to pay any attention to mechanics at all! Once you’ve gotten in the habit of paying attention to mechanics, you’ll be able to multitask doing that while reading for enjoyment, but it’s definitely good to start with rereads.
Before we start, what do I mean when I say mechanics?
When I use the word mechanics, I’m talking about all the word-level and sentence-level stuff that goes into producing a story. This means things like spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation. These little elements are the very foundation of your story—without them, your readers have nothing to read, and if you don’t understand how to use them, you can end up confusing readers more than entertaining them.
So how do you get better at writing mechanics without signing up for a refresher grammar class?
First, just keep your eyes peeled.
The key to working on your writing mechanics just by reading is to pay close attention. Read each sentence individually, without moving automatically to the next sentence. You might actually find it helpful to pick random sentences from throughout the book, or to start at the last page and go backwards.
Ask yourself a few questions about the sentence you just read:
Is the structure of this sentence familiar?
Are all the words spelled the way I thought they were spelled?
What are the punctuation marks and where are they?
When you encounter an unfamiliar or particularly difficult sentence structure, copy it down somewhere. See if you can find similar sentences during the rest of your reading. Then, when you have a chance, sit down and try to write your own sentences with a similar structure. When you were first learning to speak as a child, you performed this same action mentally. Your parents would say “The ball is blue,” and you’d try saying “The ball is green” or “The chair is blue” or “The chair is green,” simply swapping out some words for others. You can do the exact same thing intentionally with your writing. It teaches you how to write new sentence structures without having to start from scratch every time!
If you find a word that you know you wouldn’t be able to spell, take a moment to write it down or type it out a few times to help you commit it to memory. If it’s an especially tricky word that you know you’ll use in your own books, I recommend writing it down on a notecard or sticky note that you can display near your writing area, that way you’ll see it every time you sit down to write.
Finally, take a look at the punctuation. The period at the end of the sentence is likely obvious, so you don’t have to pay it much mind, but what about commas? Where are they in the sentence? If you’re surprised by where a comma is, copy the sentence down somewhere and see if you can find similar ones. Also take a look at lesser-used punctuation marks like semicolons (;) and dashes (—). Where are those? Are there any patterns to how they’re used? The nice thing about punctuation is that it tends to follow certain patterns (although commas can be a bit wobbly…), so you can pick up the rules just by observing.
Fortunately, the act of simply paying attention to mechanics really helps improve your mechanics-wielding ability. You don’t have to spend hours and hours learning terms like “prepositional phrase” or “gerund” or “past-participle,” drawing sentence maps, or studying grammar books to understand this stuff. (Unless you’re like me and love all that…) It’ll start to come naturally once you’ve been making yourself actually look at it for a while!
Look for broken rules.
You probably learned a lot of writing “rules” in school, things like “Never start a sentence with a conjunction” (like and or but) and “A complete sentence needs a subject, object, and verb.” While these “rules” served your school writing, where you were expected to produce reports and research papers, a lot of the rules can be completely thrown out the window in novel writing, at least in certain circumstances.
So once you’ve spent some time paying attention to mechanics (maybe a book or two), start looking for places where authors break the “rules” you learned in school, or even the rules you’ve started to notice as you’ve been reading for mechanics. Whenever you find a broken rule (such as a sentence starting with and), take a moment to pause and reflect. Ask yourself:
Why might the author have chosen to break this rule this time? (For example, maybe it serves to show a character’s scattered thoughts, makes a fighting scene feel even more intense, or makes the reader feel a jolt in a sudden turn of events.)
How often does the author break this rule? (Is it only one time in the whole book? Once a page?)
Do I like the effects of this broken rule? (Gotta always be going back to our likes and dislikes!)
When you’re a creative writer, sticking to rules is not as important as knowing when and how to break them. So it’s worth your time to look at how other authors break rules and keep those examples in your back pocket to make use of in your own writing.
I hope that this post has helped you figure out what kinds of notes to take as you read if you want to develop your own writing style or learn writing mechanics. The key is taking lots of notes, so don’t be afraid to keep that highlighter, notebook, or note-taking app busy at all times!
And that brings our little series to an end. I hope you’ve found the Learn Writing by Reading series helpful! Everything you’ve read here is how I taught myself to write well, and the novels I read are still teaching me new things all the time. May the same be true for you!