6 Ways Studying Literature Can Improve Your Creative Writing Skills
You wouldn’t think much of a film director who’d never watched a movie, or a stand-up comedian who’d never been to a comedy show. But there are still some aspiring writers out there who are under the impression that studying literature, or even just reading widely, will somehow dilute their own voice and work to the detriment of their own writing.
That couldn’t be more mistaken. Reading and studying the writing of others – from the greats of literature to pulp fiction – helps to expand the range of your imagination, gives you new ideas, frees you from tired old tropes and lets you write something original and readable.
1. Studying literature helps you imitate the style of others – and develop a style of your own
When you read something you love, especially if it’s written in a distinctive voice, it’s natural to end up echoing it in your own writing – even your own speech – for a while. Nearly any fan of PG Wodehouse will have found themselves inadvertently thinking that something might be a jolly good lark, what! And reading Jane Austen can have a similar effect, until you end up writing sentences that note, in an ironical tone, that your writing might become quite accomplished, should you only put aside dancing in order to have time and leisure to improve it. And even reading the works writers whose style is less immediately identifiable can lead to their particular quirks and turns of phrase appearing, unconsciously, in your own work.
This is one of the tendencies that makes writers shy away from reading the works of others, so that they can retain their own ‘voice’ and not end up picking up the style of the writers they admire. The problem is that this doesn’t help you improve. Mastery as a writer comes when you reach the point that you can choose consciously to switch from one style to another; when you think of great writers with a distinctive style, it isn’t usually the case that they can only write in that style – it’s that they choose to.
While you might notice that a writer’s earlier works sound derivative and their later works more original, that’s not typically something that’s achieved by purging all other influences from their surroundings. Instead, this flexibility of style is achieved by consciously studying both your own writing style and that of others. A good warm-up exercise for a writer is to write a scene in the style of different writers – for instance, you could try the spelling-it-all-out approach typically taken by young adult writers, the minimalist style of Ernest Hemingway, the heavy interiority of Virginia Woolf or the clipped short sentence of thriller writers like Lee Child. Some will seem right for one storyline but completely wrong for another. Once you can do this sort of exercise, you’ll be better equipped to figure out what’s right for the story that you want to tell.
2. It introduces you to interesting techniques for telling stories and describing characters
What you might read for fun and what you might read in when studying literature can be quite different. The formal study of literature teaches us about how literature has changed and evolved over time, and why authors in each period adopted particular techniques. For instance, the ponderous description used by many Victorian authors was often motivated by being paid by the word, with characters repeatedly re-introduced because the story might have been serialised over weeks or months, so that all but the keenest readers might have forgotten an early character by the time the story reached its end. Other decisions might have been motivated by something more high-minded, such as the belief by some Modernist writers that fragmented, non-chronological storylines and unreliable narrators better reflected how we really experience the world – seldom knowing everything that’s going on around us – than the fuller explanations and neater resolutions of earlier fiction.
As a modern-day writer, you’ll probably draw on these different traditions even if you’re not aware of it; for instance, you might create tension in your storyline with a main character whose perspective is clearly incomplete and flawed, even as you enjoy using a lavish descriptive style to bring a historical setting to life. Studying the works of other writers helps you to understand how these techniques can be used to greatest effect; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. You might love the way a writer gives you a first impression of a character, and then slowly reveals how mistaken your initial conclusions about them were – borrowing their technique for your own writing isn’t plagiarism, but instead how writers usually learn and develop.
And if you do feel concerned about plagiarism, it’s a good idea to have at least some grasp of the history of literature, as it can be very embarrassing to come up with what you think is an astonishingly original idea only to discover that someone very famous already wrote much the same thing, over a hundred years ago.
3. It helps to spark original ideas
Reading widely doesn’t lead to you copying other writers’ ideas. More often, it leads to you having more interesting ideas of your own. Think about the classic format of an elevator pitch for a movie: it’s x meets y. It’s classic fantasy meets a boarding school novel (that’s Harry Potter); 1984 meets reality TV (that’s The Hunger Games), Pride and Prejudice meets zombies (that’s – unsurprisingly – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). TV Tropes has a whole page of these kind of examples for works of literature. None of these lack originality despite wearing their influences on their sleeve. Instead, they benefit from the traditions that they draw on, whether those of the traditions of boarding school novels, of dystopian fiction, or of tongue-in-cheek zombie fiction.
Reading more widely and studying literature can help spark similar ideas in you. You might find yourself studying Gothic novels and wondering what it might be like to change some of the variables, whether that’s setting them in the modern day, telling the story from an unusual perspective that’s normally neglected in the genre (such as a parental figure, or a servant), or introducing elements from other compatible genres such as modern horror, high fantasy or science fiction. That’s just one example of a genre, but you can do the same with pretty much any field of literature that you find yourself interested in.
There’s also a world out there of works that are consciously derived from classic literature and use that as a springboard for something interesting and fun. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one example at the lowbrow end of the market, but there are plenty of highbrow examples, from Jean Rhys’s 1966 Wide Sargasso Sea, a response to Jane Eyre, to Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a modern retelling of The Tempest. There’s not much difference between setting your story in another author’s existing world and setting in a historical period, and such works can still be hugely meaningful; Wide Sargasso Sea, for instance, uses the context of Jane Eyre for a searing examination of colonialism.
4. It teaches you ways to succeed and pitfalls to avoid
Half the time, when studying literature from the perspective of a writer, you’ll find yourself thinking, “wow, that was great. I’d like to write like that”. The other half of the time, you’ll think, “that was dreadful. I hope I never write anything like that.” The two responses can be equally educational. What seems like a good idea can quickly sour when you see it in practice in someone else’s work; this is particularly true of gimmicks like writing a novel in second person – and it’s much better to discover that when reading someone else’s writing than halfway through producing your own 150,000 word novel, containing many hundreds of pronouns that you’ll now need to revise.
One of the questions that the study of literature encourages us to answer is “why is this work good?” or in some cases, “why is it bad?” There’s a lot more to it than this, of course – studying a novel isn’t the same as writing a book review – but the question of what makes great literature great is nonetheless a central one. The answer might be, “it’s great because it explores the interior life of a kind of character who never usually gets this treatment in fiction”, or “it’s great because it’s a story that’s truly inspiring and makes me want to do more with my life”. Once you’ve worked out how it explores that interior life, or what makes it so inspiring, you can apply that understanding to your own work.
5. It helps you avoid misconceptions about what great writers are really like
From a distance, the world of great literature can seem remarkably intimidating – whether that’s leather-bound copies of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, or elegant Penguin Classics of the works of the Brontë sisters, or simply Les Misérables clocking in at four times the length of anything else on your Kindle. And if you never read any of them, then you’ll never lose this mistaken impression, and might well think you’ll never write anything of such weight and importance.
But these ideas seldom surviving reading classics of literature, and almost never survive actually studying them. You’ll soon learn to recognise the jokes that Shakespeare crammed into his plays just as much as you’ll admire his use of iambic pentameter, spot the times that Alexandre Dumas wrote a long stretch of dialogue to make the most of being paid by the line, and see where Dickens played up to the sentimentality of Victorian readers. In other words, all of these great writers were human beings dealing with the difficulty of pleasing their audiences and keeping a roof over their heads just like modern writers do. Sometimes that went well; Dumas’ dialogue now reads as enjoyably modern and snappy – and sometimes not so much; as Oscar Wilde said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
If you’re prone to feeling depressed that you’ll never write as well as the greats did, reading more widely can help. Instead of Hamlet, try Titus Andronicus, a play so dreadful that some critics insist Shakespeare couldn’t have written it, or try reading the juvenilia of great writers, produced before they hit their stride. Comparing yourself to the best of the best is often disheartening, but it’s useful to remember that even they weren’t that good all the time.
6. It reminds you that reading and writing should be enjoyable
When you’re deep into writing something that’s important to you, it can feel like pressure or work rather than like something that’s fun to do – even more so if you’re not so much writing as struggling to overcome writer’s block.
Taking the time to step away from obsessing over your own work to enjoy the work of others can make all the difference in reminding you why the world of literature was something you chose to embrace in the first place. This might be in the form of indulging in a favourite book that you’ve read a dozen times, having a strident debate with your book club about the merits of that week’s pick, or sitting down to read a classic novel and analyse it critically. Whichever way you engage with literature, ensuring that you make time to do that rather than sitting in an echo chamber of your own writing is vital. Ignoring all writing but your own is a sure route to literary cabin fever, not to producing something outstanding. And studying literature is especially rewarding when you have something crucial in common with your literary heroes: that you’re a writer too.