If you were paying attention yesterday, you caught on that I’m going to be doing a series on “reading like a writer” for the next few days. Yesterday we covered why it’s important for writers to read like writers, and today we’re looking at the first key part to doing that: writing conventions.
Writing conventions are pretty much the “basics” of writing, the building blocks of a story: grammar, semantics, organization, structure, and style. When you open a book to start reading like a writer, the first thing you need to pay attention to are these building blocks.
First and foremost, these basics are actually not quite so “basic” at the end of the day. Writers use these elements in different ways to achieve different goals. In other words, they break the rules when they need to (keep in mind, though, breaking the rules in your own writing is tricky business unless you know exactly what you’re doing). For example, a “writer” who uses atrocious grammar for the sake of style may lose quite a few readers.
As a writer-reader, you should analyze an author’s specific manipulation of basic writing conventions. Ask yourself why an author chose to write things they way they did and whether or not it was valuable and effective at getting you to where the writer wanted you to go.
Grammar is one of the conventions writers should typically be consistent with (a writer who misuses “then” and “than” only loses respect, no matter what the reason for it). However, there are some weird exceptions. Consider things like this: is the writer using different grammar to denote the different voice in fictional characters? Why might he or she have used a double negative instead of simply an affirmative? What’s the reason? Did it work?
Word choice is a major factor in writing. Most good writers have chosen the words they have used very consciously, determining the absolute best fit for the situation. By paying close attention to the specific words authors have used, understanding both the connotation and the denotation of these words, and seeing how they fit into the rest of the story is a great way to figure out what’s really going on.
Consider the overall flow of the story. Does it fit together? Did the beginning scene prepare you for the following scene? Does anything feel clunky and incomplete? If it does, identify why it feels clunky and incomplete–hell, maybe the author wanted it that way, and you can usually tell based on the tone of the rest of the piece. Really consider why scenes were placed in the order they are in and what that accomplishes as far as moving the story forward.
Structure is different than organization. It’s not where the elements are put together–it’s how the elements are put together. Did the author use long or short chapters? Why? Is the dialogue attached to name tags or left alone? How are the sentences laid out? What’s the importance of the sentence structure? Does it convey a mood that matches that of the scene?
Style can get tricky. One of the greatest teachers I ever had said something brilliant about style: “A piece of work can be grammatically perfect but stylistically ugly.” Style is not above critique, though many writers seem to think it is. An author’s individual deviation from any of the above conventions can be considered a stylistic choice. Some of these choices work wonderfully. Some do not. While reading, identify these stylistic choices. Determine if they “work” for the story or if they do more harm than good. Why do they work? Why don’t they? What could have been done to save the sentence or scene?
This is only the first step in reading like a writer, but it is probably the most important step. So much of what an author is trying to accomplish in a scene is played out in the conventions alone that paying close enough attention to them will teach you a great deal about what they were trying (and hopefully succeeding) to do.