Sunday, February 01, 2009


Sleuthfest 2009: "Read Like a Writer"

As a writer, I used to feel guilty about reading, worrying that any time spent reading took time away from writing. But that's the thinking of an amateur - and over the years, I came to realize how much reading other works - any genre - influenced my writing. Deliberately setting out to assess the writing in other works has shaped my own voice and style for the better.

Writing teachers constantly urge their students to read, read, read to study styles and techniques. Not only does reading spark responses and even new ideas - especially when we read non-fiction or new material that tests our assumptions. Reading a range of material also prepares us to think about outlines and organization, offering a drill for our own revisions. Sometimes writers immediately grasp how another writer inserts suspense, tone or motivation, and sometimes they must read a passage two or three times to understand how the writer manipulates words for some subtle purpose.

Writers have the luxury of knowing what they like to read and why, but also understand they must sometimes plow through difficult, odd or horrible passages.

Because practicing analytical reading skills is crucial for rewriting. Reading through a first draft is a humbling experience, worse than listening to a recording of one's voice, and that may be why I spend more time rewriting than I do laying out the original draft. To finish a book, I must read to snip, shape and control my plot.

In attending conferences, I'm always amazed how much I learn from readers and writers alike, those magic moments when everyone in the room is inspired. Despite a vast range of techniques, even in the mystery genre, few people argue and insist that one way, their way, is the best or only way. The best writers are curious about new places, people and ideas, and while I prefer reading the explorers over the preachers, I cannot deny having some of the latter's tendencies.

So, I look forward to Sleuthfest 2009, meeting all, and joining the panel "Read Like a Writer," which will discuss two inextricably intertwined skills that cannot be separated. Think about the reasons you love to read and how you read, shed the guilt, and stop by to say hello.

Susan Froetschel is a journalist and the author of three mystery books, including Royal Escape, published in 2008 by Five Star/Cengage. She has taught writing at Yale and Southern Connecticut State University. Her website is, and more of her thoughts on writing can be found at Poe's Deadly Daughters


Terry Odell said...

I think it's a fact that once you become a writer, you can never read the same way again. I'm constantly noticing the words, the structure, the characterization, and it's almost impossible to turn off the internal editor.

I'll be at SleuthFest as well. I'm doing a panel on dialogue. I'll be sure to look you up -- and you can hunt me down too.

Anonymous said...

What Terry says is so true - and I look forward to meeting her and hearing tips on dialogue. My characters are just too chatty!

Terry Odell said...

Chatty characters can be good. When I'm floundering, I just stick 'em in a room together and let them go at it. Of course, I end up cutting a lot, but until there's something on the page, you can't fix it.

Come say hi at SleuthFest.

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