Books on the Dissecting Table: Knowing your books, Knowing yourself, and Improving your Writing in the Process

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

Like so many other bookworms out there, I spend a lot of my free time with the written word.  Romances, young adult, classics, mysteries, poetry and science fiction tomes all have their place in my reading rotation. The only genre I absolutely will not pick up for pleasure is horror. I made an exception for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and had trouble sleeping for months.  Sleep is important, so horror is a no-go for me, my sincerest apologies to Stephen King.

Like so many readers, very rarely do I stop to ask myself why I read what I read.

That stops now, because why is a valid question that will help me understand more about books, as well as about myself, as a reader, a writer, and a human being. Chances are, careful examination of your reading preferences could shed some light on your life as well.

Step 1: Examining your taste in books

Instead of darting your eyes across the page as fast as you can, stuffing words and images into your brain without processing why, stop to think. Is there are a reason that Janet Evanovich’s stories of disaster-prone bounty hunters are sweeter to your literary taste-buds than say, the disturbing descriptions from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis?”

Is it about plot? Do you prefer a fast-moving, comedic storyline or a complicated metaphor for the human condition?

Or perhaps it’s about language. Some readers enjoy a text that reads like everyday life with some extra snark and “weird” factor (think Dave Sedaris) while others find a certain pleasure in delving into densely written historical tomes.

What is it about the text itself that draws you in, or makes you run away screaming? Identifying what is happening in the book, and figuring out what works for you (or doesn’t) is your first step.

Step 2: Examining your reactions and preferences as a reader

Now that you know what you like and how you respond to it, it’s time to think about why.

You’re gripping the arms of your chair. Maybe you have work to do around the house or a phone call to a friend to make. But you just can’t put that James Patterson thriller down. Even though you don’t consider yourself an adrenaline addict in your every day life, your reading habits point to a secret longing for adventure and serious risk-taking.  Not to mention your admiration for straightforward, clear-cut language.

Or maybe you’re dreaming about Frances Mayes’ life of recipes and renovations in Tuscany. Because even though you’ve been known to burn water, and use the clothes dryer as a wardrobe, you fantasize about cooking elaborate dishes, experiencing a new culture and restoring a beautiful old space to live in.  Besides, Mayes’ lushly embroidered phrases could make you fall in love with even the most mundane aspects of international living.

Whatever it is that links your reading habits, try to identify it. What do the books you read have in common? Do you read different styles depending on your mood? What do you read when you’re sad as opposed to when you’re happy? Do the rhymed verses of limericks and sonnets bring a smile to your face, or bring on a headache?

Turn post-book analysis into a learning experience that begins with the book, but ends with you. Don’t be afraid to reflect on your preferences and what those preferences mean about who you are, as a reader, and as a person. Are you limited in your experiences or merely limiting yourself?

Books are tools–don’t hesitate to explore alternative realities and try on new personas. New authors can help you expand your horizons –even outside your literary life.

Step 3:  Examining your reactions and preferences as a writer

You finally know what you prefer to read and why, but what does that mean for you as a writer? Identifying the stories and styles of writing you enjoy and why you like them is key for wordsmiths looking to improve on their craft. Because trying to write in a style or genre that you don’t enjoy reading is generally a losing battle. Even if for some strange reason, you enjoy writing stories and styles you wouldn’t personally read, that becomes problematic when it’s time to revise as you will be reading, and rereading your text, especially with longer writing projects like novels.

Beloved books and texts are role models writers can look up to. Which is not to say copy. But there is something to be said for learning by observation, as opposed to the hard way (trial, and train wreck). There are lessons to be gleaned from careful readings of your favorite writings. If a simple turn of phrase is good enough for Hemingway, maybe your ridiculous need to complicate syntax is unnecessary.

There is no escaping it, there are people who have written (and written well) before you, so you might as well take advantage of their existence as a potential learning experience. Read and reread their books until you’ve cracked the code of what they make you feel and why and how you can apply these newfound tactics to your own future masterpieces.

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Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by State Records NSW.

3 Replies to “Books on the Dissecting Table: Knowing your books, Knowing yourself, and Improving your Writing in the Process”

  1. You make a really good point! My reading enjoyments (not so much habits, as I am trying to branch out in regards to genres) reflect my love of history, definitely.

    I also think the style of writing you prefer says a lot about who you. I prefer a cut back Hemingway style of writing over a more descriptive text. Perhaps that means I prefer to cut to the chase, rather than romanticising?

  2. Chris all your posts are so well thought out and logically presented. The sentence “…careful examination of your reading preferences could shed some light on your life as well” rings so true. Now when I read I skip to the end, assure myself of the conclusion, then come back to the start of the book.

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