Reading for others: one writer’s experience

There are loads of techniques for improving your writing (and, crucially, self-editing) ability. One such technique is critiquing other writers’ work – normally, though not always, on a reciprocal basis. As anyone who’s used the Writers’ Workshop editorial services knows, that exchange of critiques isn’t a substitute for the full-on professional edit – but it still brings huge rewards to both partners: the one who’s having their work read and the one doing the reading.

What follows is a guest post from science author, Dawn Field, for whom reading for others became something of a quest in itself – but also became the gateway for her first science fiction novel, still in draft form but waiting for that final push . . .

Dawn-Field-headshot

Dawn Field (credit: OUP)

I’ve so often been told that reading is as important as writing if you want to be a good writer. It is only from reading that we fill our heads with what is possible and also learn the craft of writing from the best. This is truth, but there are also very compelling reasons to read for any writer, published or not, with a finished draft or not. Here’s why I think it is great to pull out your red pen, put on your thinking cap and jump at the chance to read for others if you want to improve your own writing.

When I was young, I read through the shelves of our small library. I would carry home a stack of books as large as I could hold every time I visited, which most often, was weekly.

I loved reading, but at that time couldn’t imagine writing a book. It was just a consumer love affair. The dream of actually writing one wouldn’t come until 20 years later at the end of graduate school. Even then it would lie dormant for another decade. Then a planetary alignment brought me in line with a co-author, a topic and a publisher, Oxford University Press. As amazing as the experience of writing my first book was, it still did not fulfil my secret dream — my decades-old dream to write a work of fiction.

I had long forgotten the flavour of this dream, feeling it too lofty a goal. Doing a non-fiction book was more than enough to fly me over the moon.

biocodeHaving finished the book, though, a tiny bit of my dream came out of the swirling fog. The leak was triggered by a conversation I had with my son. He had written a ‘chapter book’, the Fire Forest. We self-published it through CreateSpace. My experience of it was one of amazement. He wrote much, much better than I did. To help him focus, I encouraged him to dictate the story to me. As such, I could watch and hear him think. I would be typing, his story going in one direction and then mid-paragraph he would belch out a creative twist that made my head spin. He did it over and over again. To say I loved this experience would be to belittle it. I have no words for what I learned and how much I enjoyed it. I was learning at the feet of the master, even if he were only 4 feet tall.

Maybe I started to think, well if I’m related to someone who can write fiction that easily, perhaps…

But I don’t write fiction.

After our books were done, we were talking and he said he found ‘my kind of writing’ much, much harder. The hardest possible kind of writing, he insisted. I could hardly imagine why, so I asked.

“It’s more difficult because you have to read so much and get all the facts right.”

“That is exactly what I like to do,” I told him. “That’s why I find it so fun. I don’t have to make it up in my brain like you do. That’s why I find what you did a much bigger achievement.”

We agreed in the end to disagree. We also agreed to stick with our mutual admiration.

No, I could never write fiction. He could.

Then I wrote 100k words of science fiction, out of the blue and in a great flurry of creative inspiration. All it took was the right prompt.

I must have learned something from him – and I suddenly had some of the right ingredients, motivation and idea.

I had started to think about a follow up science book. I created an outline and presented it to my co-author. In it, I had a last chapter in which a young girl, 300 years in the future, describes her life. It was a mechanism to play out for the reader the implications for present-day science. It was a literary device for summarizing the book. He balked and insisted it was science fiction. I said it was informed speculation on ‘what if’ and therefore acceptable. He said it was a great idea, just belonged in the realm of fiction.

But I don’t write fiction, not even science fiction.

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Dawn’s writing desk

I wrote like my son had, from start to finish in a few weeks. I knew the topic so well it just flowed out, a mix of fact and fiction. I realized the 100k words were just the first third of the story this book was meant to tell. I was stuck and realized I needed to figure out the ending; just writing from the seat of my pants wouldn’t do anymore.

I don’t write fiction. I just needed to get that one idea out of my system to advance my scientific thinking. It was a personal exercise on the road towards the next non-fiction book (another science book now under contract with OUP).

But I now had an acceptable reason to learn how to write fiction. What if I could one day finish that story? Even if it were just for myself it would be more than enough — just to know I could take an imaginary story from start to finish in a way at least I found acceptable.

A friend inched me further forward. She started taking an online writing class. She sent me things and I was soon begging her to send more. I could ask her questions and hear what she was learning in her writing class. I could sate my curiosity about fiction without actually dipping a toe in the formal pool. I don’t do fiction, I repeated to myself and her, but these ideas will help my non-fiction.

My friend wrote short pieces that all magically felt like the beginnings of books. That’s why I liked them so much. I could feel that they were book-sized and it was a wee-bit like writing a book myself. But I don’t write fiction.

Then came my first full fiction, book draft – a manuscript for a fantasy novel. After not having had time outside my career to read a complete fiction book from start to end in ages, I loved it. Another draft novel came out of the woodwork. And another. Then a fantastic memoir of turning around a life of drug addiction. I started to very actively look for drafts.

I was in a new type of school. I could justify getting so close to examining how fiction was written because apparently I could translate my 20+ years of experience writing science, and my book, into advice and encouragement that did help fiction writers. I had such a high regard of the act of writing from the imagination that it seemed to motivate and help others.

Reading for others can be one of the most rewarding pursuits, if one approached it in the right way. These are my tips for entering, as author Paul Klein said when he read this, ‘reading chair writing school’:

By my experiences, certainly a great and most obvious reason to read for others is that when I need a sanity-check, an emotional litmus-test, or just a simple typo cleanse I will hopefully have someone willing to do it. What goes around comes around and I fully believe in the need to play fair. Equally important, if you’ve already used up all your brownie points asking others to read your work, at some point you’ll have to win back those points by reading for them or they will get very grumpy. I always offer to read first, and then again. Yes, because I have started exploring writing in more genres. I started first with moments from my own life. While, I’m not up for writing a memoir, writing about ‘defining moments’ offers the chance to write without having to research anything. You just write, because you already know the story. A step towards fiction?

While feeding the virtuous cycle of reading for others is essential, I soon found much deeper reasons for altruistic reading. Turns out it is quite a selfish pursuit if done generously and thoughtfully. While we can learn a lot from published books, we must acknowledge they are polished and professional. They are paragons of ‘how to do it’, but they are often so good it is hard to actually see how they were done.

OUP

Where my writing journey began . . . the Oxford University Press.

As I read more drafts for various people, I have started to imagine books as like car engines. If you want to be a mechanic you’d best learn how engines actually work. If you just see cars driving, the equivalent in many ways of reading, you’ll never actually know how an engine works. If someone opens the hood and shows you the engine, you’ll still not be too much better off. You’ll be able to discern some of the parts and see where the wind-shield wiping fluid goes, but certainly not everything. This is like critically critiquing a good book to look at its structure and style. Get another mechanic to take apart the whole engine and let you put it back together with her and you’ll have a sounder knowledge. Work with that mechanic to fix 10 cars – or 100 – or 1000 – and you’ll be a leagues ahead. Now you are in the realm of reading for others.

If you read the classics, you’ll know what good writing looks like. At this point I should say that there is a lot of good writing that just doesn’t appeal because of its topic or style. It is still perfectly good for others. This is a whole ‘nother matter and such good books that just don’t appeal to your tastes should never be confused with ‘bad’ writing. There is also the fact that just because it is published, it might not be gold standard to everyone.

Only after reading a wide range of in-progress works did I get a much more realistic view of the writing process and what constitutes good and less-good, or even bad. This includes trying to look at drafts of great works when and where they exist. It is heartening to see handwritten drafts of the greats with huge scribbles, chunks added, and notes all down the side. Even the best have to work at their art to make it art.

Reading for others I got a whole new world view of the good, bad and the ugly, and how to distinguish them on the continuum. Most of all, it allowed me to properly recognize writing as a process. Nothing can be perfect to start with and a good reader learns to see the best in anything you pick up for others. The sign of a good reader is that they advance the writer at least one more step down the chosen path. You might even make a catch that an author fixes in a way that makes your head-spin. Count your lucky stars if you fall in with a writer like this.

Since you are taking the time to look, also learn how to learn to give thoughtful feedback. In fact feedback might seem purely altruistic, but again it is a great opportunity to learn. When I read for others I am struck by what works and what doesn’t (in my opinion, of course). Going past this, I force myself as much as I can to figure out why I think it doesn’t work. Even more important is to take the next step and try to offer direction on how it would work. I always reassure an author they can leave my advice in the margins, I am only offering it as a suggestion.

If you train yourself to not only find bumps in the road but also to smooth them out, you’ll be miles ahead on constructing your own road of writing. If you are willing to work iteratively with your author and they do a great job responding, you’ll be surprised how much insight you gain into the writing process from the back and forth. It is quite astonishing to have the honour to see an early and a finish draft of a great book. Trying to learn the craft of writing from a book can pale in comparison.

I find that what I often can’t see in my own writing I can see right away in the writing of others. I might be blind to my own typos, overlooking more dire weaknesses and personal biases, but these all jump out at me in someone else’s work. This is because I am the objective reader and not the writer.  I’m outside the head of the writer. This is a tremendous vantage point, but only if you put the needs and wishes of the writer first.

Many things never occur to us as problems until we see them, just as we often don’t know how something works until it is broken. Until I heard many tales of woe of writers about their writing adventures, saw myriad drafts, endless edits, false-starts, dead ends and restarts did I 100% come to appreciate the flawless arc of a perfectly told story with a clear beginning, middle and end, a wildly satisfying climax and perfect cathartic resolution.

It’s not until I saw pages full of typos that I 100% appreciated the importance of a copy editor and proof reader.

It’s not until I saw a broken timeline that I 100% appreciate the beauty of a well-thought out chronology.

It’s not until I saw a messy, jumble of words and incoherent thoughts, that you’ll 100% appreciate how easy great writers make it look.

It’s not until I saw uninspired writing that I realized how 100% information and idea packed great writing is.

It’s not until I read a bunch of writing by people who are writing for self-therapy that I 100% appreciated how little ‘self’ a disciplined, experienced writer leaves in their finished work.

You get the point.

Best of all, from this practice of reading comes an understanding of the higher-order principles of writing. Seeing themes, motifs, symbolisms, unexplored plot twists, and ‘the long arcs’ of the story start to become more natural.

This type of practice is best gained best by reading widely and often. To get more under your belt in shorter time, it is essential to learn to skim, especially if you’ve been asked to do a structural read. The best reward is to see a rough draft turned to gold before your eyes.

I even started to watch movies in a whole new way – to see how the screenwriter crafted the storyline.

I find the hardest trick is finding enough stuff worth reading. People are shy about sharing and I, like anyone, ideally want to get in with writers whose topics, genres and styles I like. It’s an even better deal for both parties when a friendly, mutually-productive rapport develops that helps both of us grow as writers and readers.

The chance to talk back and forth to an author is often the very best kind of school in my mind. It is highly educational to talk about what you were thinking when you read, what they were thinking about and if what was intended came across perfectly or fell short. This kind of interaction helps unpack the psychology of reading, which I have come to appreciate is in many ways is so much more important that the mechanics of writing. As a writer, it is essential to understand how to connect with your reader. This is a chance to deeply explore how this connection is forged.

Reading ever-more-widely, I was pleased to find that reading for others, especially if you get into giving iterative constructive feedback, is a fun way to get some experience writing in different genres without having to do so yourself. I vicariously get a bit of the feel of writing things I would never undertake to write myself. I can see into the underbelly of life experiences I will never have. This kind of perspective can be invaluable in helping you view your area of writing more clearly.

Often we don’t quite know what we have until we compare it to many other very different things. I have found this very true of writing. You might do only non-fiction, so reading fiction for others might really help you stretch. Or vice-versa, your fiction might benefit from thoughtfully considering how to write compelling, but highly objective non-fiction. For fiction authors if you write romance it might be interesting to read for a thriller-writing author. If you do tear-jerking drama, it might be interesting to read for a mystery writer. It might be a true stretch for me to work with a children’s author or a poet, but if I don’t try, how will I know?

If you are really lucky you might also find you are one of those gold dust readers who can find some joy in reading anything for someone else. Perhaps you’ll find you like it because it feels so good to help other people. Perhaps it will get you one step closer to your dream of writing a great work of fiction. Certainly, I’m at safe in the knowledge that I at least have a draft novel stashed away.

Dawn Field is the co-author of Biocode. She is also a Senior Research Fellow at the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a Research Associate of the Biodiversity Institute of Oxford at Oxford University and a Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution.

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