The Importance of Reading Like a Writer

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Joseph O’Neill is the author of the novels The Dog, Netherland (which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award), The Breezes, This Is the Life, and Good Trouble. He has also written a family history, Blood-Dark Track. He lives in New York City and teaches at Bard College.

Learning how to read like a writer — to read receptively, parasitically, theftuously — is an important aptitude for a practitioner. I can’t think of many professional writers who don’t have this aptitude.

Writers won’t necessarily read to try to “understand” a story in the sense of figuring out exactly why the characters acted in the way that they did, or what the “point” of the story is. They’ll try to figure out how its effects are produced. And, although they have their preferences, they won’t get too hung up on questions of taste. Writer X might not hit my sweet spot, but I’ll be curious about what it is about X’s stuff that works. Of course, in the end you learn most from the writers who give you the most pleasure. Rereading Raymond Carver, I found out that it’s practically impossible to overuse “said” as a speech verb. Reading Flannery O’Connor I found out that you can be unpleasant to every single one of your characters. From Alice Munro I learned that you can break up a story into episodes that span decades. From Cheever I learned about the magic of an intimate, commanding, dreamy voice. Calvino opens one to the charm of fantastical worlds. And so on. You also notice negative things: for example, how almost no good stories confuse the reader at any point, even as their mysteriousness deepens. You always know what is happening, even if your sense of what’s actually going on becomes more uncertain.

One thing that strikes me about apprentice writers — and I’m remembering my younger self here, especially — is that they often don’t understand how good what they’re reading is, or what about it might be valuable from a technical point of view.

I recently had the opportunity to write a story based on the uncompleted story ideas of Henry James. I perused the ideas, picked one, and converted it to my own use (with a contemporary setting). I gave a class of mine the same exercise. The stories they wrote were much better than their usual stuff, although they couldn’t necessarily see this, perhaps because what they’d written didn’t exactly chime with their preoccupations. But the story dictates its own logic. You may want to write about something but find that the text gravitates in another direction. That’s a great moment, in fact it’s something I count on when writing: I don’t want to end up with something that accords with my preconceptions. That said, a powerful starting idea is essential, even if at some point it’s abandoned or suspended in favor of an unforeseen direction. I pointed out to my students that James’ ideas, however alien or cheesy-looking, were loaded with dramatic possibility—what if X, what if Y—and that once the decision has been made to pursue such an idea, the resulting story almost automatically has velocity and direction.

I’ve found that you almost always need two ideas per story — and the more superficially unrelated they are, the better. When I have a story idea, I search my notes for another idea that popped up months ago; intuitively, I yoke the ideas to each other and hope for the best.

The more you’ve read, the better you’ll be at evaluating your own writing. For example, sometimes I write a phrase and think to myself, I’ve never seen that adjective and noun next to each other before. That stays in. Then I’ll write something and I’ll see that my formulation is familiar. Out it goes. Likewise with action moments in a story. If it feels unfamiliar or unexpected, it’s much more likely to be worth keeping. See, for example, how Lydia Davis uses an unexpected phrase as a plot twist.

One thing that all very good short stories have — including those written by writers as varied as those named above — is what I’ll call the flare of the parrot. Just as the landscape of the story seems to be settling, just as you’re thinking, as the reader, that you’ve figured this thing out—a macaw of language or incident or emotion flies out of the trees or, better still, out of the parking lot.

Want more on short stories? Check out Signature’s Compact Guide to Writing Short Stories.