Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I keep hearing the advice that writers should read. I still don't get it. Why is this so important?

People in every trade learn from those who have gone before them. Teachers-in-training observe experienced educators in the classroom. Law students analyze and discuss past cases. Even experienced doctors read medical journals detailing studies and new research. It's difficult to make significant advancements when you're working in a vacuum. If you don't know how others have succeeded—and failed—at what you're doing, you start behind the pack.

Reading great writing is like learning directly from the masters of the craft. Reading lets you observe the tools and techniques at a writers' disposal and the unique ways in which an individual writer combines and manipulates them. The more possibilities you're aware of, the more options you have when you turn to your own writing. Reading widely also gives you a sense of what's fresh and what's stale. Don't cross off books from your “to do" list if you decide they're bad. Reading what doesn't work can be just as instructive as reading what does. Examine what's been done before; you'll be a stronger writer as a result.

When you read as a writer, approach the fiction, essay, or poem as a result of the same process you go through when you write. A published piece isn't an object of wonder that fell from the sky. It's a work of craftsmanship made with the same tools of the trade that are available to you. Be active in your reading. Ask yourself: what choices did the writer make and how do they contribute to (or detract from) the work's success? Some examples:

· Why is F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby told from the perspective of Nick Carraway?
· In Sharon Olds' poem “Feared Drowned," what does the sea imagery contribute to the poem?
· In Raymond Carver's short story “Cathedral," what obstacles does the narrator face?
Considering why an author made a specific choice can help you better understand how the work was put together. You may find this kind of analysis is easier on a second read, after you've had an opportunity to read it for pleasure and discovery.

Reading can also be a rich source of inspiration for ideas in your own writing. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in Notes from Underground: “Only if I could become an insect!" Franz Kafka took in that line and wrote his fiction “The Metamorphosis," which begins with the sentence: “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." After reading Kafka's “The Metamorphosis," Gabriel Garcia Marquez said: “When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago." He went on to write many fictions with such unexpected elements, including the short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" about a town's reaction to finding a man, weak and injured, on a path after a long rainstorm. The odd thing about this man: he has wings.