I think three problems with writing are firstly that I’m positively biased towards my own writing, secondly, I know how I want it to come across when I’m writing it and thirdly, writing can be a lot of work. So as well as feeling personally sensitive to criticism as any human does, if the criticism is actually reasonable, it could spell a whole lot of boring do-over and push back an important part of any creative work: the feeling of finishing it. Reading others’ work helps me maximise my objectivity about my own work, increase the quality of my creative output over time and minimise do-overs. This article tells you how.
Firstly and relevant to all the other points in this article, when reading another author’s work, especially if I’ve actually paid money to read their book, while I want to enjoy the read, I’m also somewhat indifferent to their feelings about their reviews (not quite true since I’m only human and can’t help sparing a thought for the fellow author behind the book). For all intents and purposes, 100% of the time, I don’t personally know the authors of the books I read, so their feelings don’t figure largely in my judgement of their creations. Unlike with my own writing therefore, It’s very easy for me to take their writing at face value and feed back bluntly and honestly via Amazon reviews etc. It almost doesn’t matter whether other authors’ books are good or bad. What’s more interesting to me is why they’re good or bad. I think this key concept unlocks the following opportunities which are less available to me reviewing my own work and much more so when I read others’ work.
The next way reading other people’s work helps is that the more I read, the better I get at neutrally identifying and articulating praise and criticism of a book. In other words, rather than just responding to the book as a reader and saying it was moving, exciting, suspenseful, frightening, disturbing, dull or annoying, other people’s books give me the opportunity to try to explain what it is about a book that moves me the way it does, without upsetting myself and also without the benefit of insider knowledge of the plot and character creation (also see later). Think of it like surgery. It may be possible to perform certain surgery on yourself but it’s generally easier to perform any surgery on someone else!
For example, recently I read a horror-fantasy book which I didn’t enjoy very much. One important reason for this was its overuse of sign-posting later plot points combined with its verbose narration and descriptive material. In other words, I was given too much information about what was going to happen next or later and then it took a very long time and a lot of unnecessary detail, to read my way there, only to discover no new information (Mheah! I paid money for this!). Coincidentally, reviewing a chapter I wrote a couple of weeks back immediately after reading the horror-fantasy, I started noticing exactly the same pattern of sign-posting (gulp!). Here reading others’ work comes to the rescue in just the same way as it highlights problems. In Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, there are some masterfully done suspense scenes. To fix the problems with my work in progress, I’ve been re-reading some of those scenes to pick up tips on how they manage to give just enough information to keep me on edge and not so much as to blow the resolution of the tension too soon. Better to identify and understand the problem even if you struggle to solve it, than be clueless about where the one-star ratings are punching you from.
The next reason I find others’ work helps improve my own is that – as touched on above – objective analysis of a piece of writing is more difficult to do with my own work, not only because of the above-mentioned personal bias but also hugely, because of simple human limitation. It can sometimes be very hard to separate the content in my braincell (with all the insider knowledge about my manuscript in progress oozing through its cytoplasm) from the text on the half-finished page (this probably touches on a lot of factors not covered here like the writer’s environment, quality of sleep, time constraints, emotional state, general stress levels etc). Generally though, I often find the ideas are flowing, the desire to finish the book and get it out there is strong but the fingers are arthritic and disobedient when I command them to intuit my every writing intention and convert it into text with perfect eloquence (pah! Insubordination!). But such omissions are blindingly obvious in other people’s work I read at leisure (because I just don’t have their insider knowledge). I find identifying them time and again in others’ work is very helpful in sharpening my own ability to catch the accident in real time, before it happens.
First here’s a made-up technical example of this – my real life one follows it: You may think you understand this sentence: ‘The, uh, dogs. Yep.’
Though sensible in a colloquial sort of way, it could mean anything, right? Especially out of context as it is. But I determinedly had an exact sentence firmly in mind when I wrote it, so that I could maintain my personal sense of integrity when I told you this: The actual sentence was meant to be ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.’
What I intend to show from this example is that when I’m writing something, I know what idea(s) I want it to express. My readers on the other hand are not privy to my inner thoughts and feelings. They only have the words on the e-Reader to go by.
Look what happens to the example when we add some context: ‘His evil typing tutor locked him in her basement with the ancient rusty contraption, a monstrous mockery of his Surface Pro. She told him he would be not be fed or shown the light of day again until he could type a certain line flawlessly, one hundred times over, in no more than three minutes and twelve seconds. “But Mother! What is the line?” His voice was pleading. Her eyes went glassy and filmed over with the tell-tale maggot-white of her enchanted ailment. No! He thought desperately. No! Please! Not now! When her voice came again it was absent and empty. “It’s, uh…” She paused, a trail of drool starting from the corner of her mouth and he could see pictures moving across her dulled pupils as visions of other planes began to possess her. ‘The phrase is.’ She strained against the magic and her eyes cleared for an instant. ‘The, uh, dogs. Yep.’ She said before the magic closed over her and she slammed the door leaving him in the hopeless guttering gold of the dying candle and the sharp iron tang of rust. ‘Oh, that’s it?’ He said to the dusty contraption, feeling much cheered. ‘Jeeze. I can handle that. But, uh, why that one?’ ‘Because, idiot boy, it contains every letter of the alphabet at least once, so it’s great typing practice,’ came his mother’s demented shriek from upstairs…
So where’s the reader left now? Maybe the half-baked sentence could still work as a plot device to show how the crazy mother / typing tutor’s illness wrecks her relationship with her son. Or maybe it was an unintentional gaff by the author who did or didn’t know it was there and did or didn’t decide they’d fix it later except they forgot and the editor thought it was meant to be there and so it was unleashed on the open market much to the readers’ confusion. In the latter case, depending on how important to the plot the scene was (say it was a book about learning to type), it could make for quite a confusing read.
Incidentally, if you hadn’t really been paying attention to the above example, can you see how even it could be a demonstration of the exact failure it’s trying to show you how to avoid? If so, post in comments!
Now for the real life example: I recently read a fantasy book which I found very confusing for this exact reason. I couldn’t even work out what had happened in the end and felt compelled to rate the book poorly even though some elements of it showed a lot of promise. There was just too much niche vernacular and ‘insider knowledge’ used, for me to understand the plot. Then reading a bit of work I did very recently, I saw that in an attempt at building a character using their unique ‘voice’, my own plot had deteriorated into impenetrable regional vernacular (aaarrrrgghh!!) from – probably – most readers’ perspective.
I actually identified this by noticing the same emotion in myself that I’d felt when reading the whacky fantasy novel. Incidentally, in lockstep, my beta-readers have also alerted me to the issue, so it’s definitely a thing! It was actually quite a thrill to find the problem myself then hear it from beta-readers after a slight delay. I’m not sure if that’s kind of perverted or not… 😊 In any case, again, it was the practice at identifying the problem in someone else’s work that made it easier to spot in my own. And note too, it wasn’t just about spotting technicalities, but also using my emotional response(s) to a piece of work as a clue to understanding what was wrong. Now I am indeed faced with approx. 80 pages of intense editing and this is of course the pitfall of improved ability to critique your own work. But I’d rather do it over and eventually publish a good book than throw it out only to see it land with giant clang in my readers’ trash cans.
In summary, reading other authors’ books frees me from personal bias towards a book and eliminates the unavoidable insider knowledge I have of my own plots. Thus unburdened, I am more free to hone the skills I need to objectively identify and articulate why a piece of writing impacts me the way it does, all the way from my instant emotional response to the technical aspects of the writing that gave rise to it. Increasing my ability to critique writing using others’ work in this way allows me to better identify good and bad aspects of my own work and finish better quality work sooner.