Everybody knows that to write well you have to read a lot. You have to absorb what other people have done in order to hone your sense of story and your ear for language. Steeping your brain in other people’s books helps you to absorb all kinds of good things in a way that is mostly effortless and subconscious.
But here’s an exercise that makes the process more conscious and analytical:
While you are reading one of your favorite authors for pleasure, make note of any passages you especially like, places where you can hear the writer part of your brain stirring with envy and annoying the reader part of your brain like a rude person in a movie theater talking over a great scene, saying things like, “Damn, that’s good. Wish I could write like that.”
Jot down the page number on your bookmark. Then go back to that page and write it out longhand, word for word, exactly as it appears in the book, down to the exact punctuation.
I’ve been doing this with A Dark Matter by Peter Straub, and I’m learning all kinds of cool little things. First I picked a simple couple of paragraphs in which he’s setting a scene in a way that I find efficient, effortless and interesting. Then I also did it with a couple of pages about half way through the book in which he’s on fire, all jets on overdrive, poetry streaming from his pen.
Now, I read each of these passages over again right before transcribing them, but I noticed all kinds of things while writing them down that I missed when reading them. Because great writing goes down so smooth that your eye glides over it. Only by trying to copy it exactly did I pick up on the mechanics of how he’s using punctuation, the choice verbs that make it sizzle, and the carefully chosen adjectives.
If you try this exercise, I recommend holding each phrase in your mind long enough to copy it down. Then check for accuracy. If you only read a few words at a time, write them down, then read another few words, you won’t get the rhythm. And if you try to retain too much prose in your memory, you’ll probably make mistakes that come from writing it the way you would, rather than how he or she did. And that’s where you learn the most, I think, from feeling the dissonance between your own tendencies on the one hand, and the way an accomplished master with a pile of books under his belt does it. It’s in the details.
I’m not saying that the way Straub wrote a paragraph is the only way, or always the best way to write that paragraph, or that some stylistic choices you might make differently are necessarily wrong. I’m just saying that it will make you think about why your favorite author chose that word, or that structure.
And don’t type it. Write it out with a pen. Having to do the slow work of forming each word will really drive this home.
You will get the benefit of handling language that has not only been through several polishing drafts, but also, hopefully, through the eyes of an editor and a copy editor. You may still find mistakes, and that’s cool too. (I found places in A Dark Matter while just reading it where a scene told in third person has pronouns left over from an earlier draft that must have been written in first person—confusing artifacts that will stop you in your tracks, but an interesting glimpse into Mr. Straub’s creative process).
Part of the fun is in seeing where a great writer has deliberately broken all kinds of rules that you would feel timid about breaking, rules that writing manuals and articles in Writer’s Digest tell you not to break. And you can see how those run on sentences, or voice changes, or whatever, can work perfectly when handled with care and employed at the right time for the right effect.
Try it. It’s like the difference between listening to a favorite song, and learning how to play it on the guitar.