Rereading to Improve Your Writing Craft

There are so many books to read and so little time. It’s a mantra every bookworm knows well. I currently have almost 300 books on my Goodreads, want-to-read list, and that’s just what’s on Goodreads. I probably own at least 200 more ebooks, audiobooks, paperbacks, and hardcovers. I often feel frustrated that I can only get through so many books in a year, despite constant reading. I want to explore new ideas and new worlds and new characters and grow my knowledge of fictional universes to improve my craft and gain exposure to new styles. Yet, the more I read and the more I write, the more I have come to believe that rereading some of those books I live is vital to improving my craft.  

Over the last five years or so, I’ve begun to put books on a reread list. The books that make this list are ones that I couldn’t put down, books that I often sacrifice sleep to read chapters or finish. I want to reread them because I enjoyed them, but there’s another reason. I want to understand the why of what caught my interest. Was it something in their style? The descriptions? The characters? What made it so I couldn’t put that book down and how can I build on those skills in my own writing?

Recently I reread Kim Stanley Robinson’s book Red Mars. Robinson is one of my favorite sci-fi authors because he’s an extraordinary worldbuilder and his characters are so wonderfully complex. Of course, he’s not everyone’s cup of tea as some of his passages and descriptions are quite lengthy, but I love his work. In reading Red Mars for a second time I was able to see exactly how he used his themes through his characters’ lives and how some characters were even a kind of avatar of a theme or philosophy that could be pitted against each other. So much of Robinson’s arguments surround the arguments, to terraform or not to terraform (each represented by a major character and their followers) and to continue with the Terran status quo or to create something politically and economically new (again represented by particular characters). In this you have a kind of four-pointed nexus that makes for very interesting and contrasting characters, all of whom want to call Mars home, but in their own way.

Rereading the book reminded me a bit of some of the suggestions from John Truby’s wonderful book The Anatomy of Story. The most interesting stories often have characters with similar goals, but different approaches.  This makes for lots of really interesting conflict and opportunities for characters who do change as a result of their experiences in a way that feels organic and natural. Of course, if you’ve read the whole Mars trilogy, you know that the conversation continues for many of the characters and the depth grows. But while I wasn’t ignorant of these themes the first time I read the book,  I didn’t notice the same level of depth the first time around. It’s not that I don’t think you can do this the first time around, it’s that I think you can do it better the second time around because you’re less distracted by the story itself and thus can tinker with the materials that went into the story’s construction. Once you observe the whole picture, you’re ready to understand the fine details of its construction.  

Consider, after you’ve finished the first draft of your own story, you can do the same thing. I know it takes me about seven to ten drafts before I feel a chapter or a short story is ready to go to an editor. So why not use the first few drafts to get the story out of the way, and then in the later drafts apply that critical eye you get from rereading books you love?

Here are a few questions I ask myself during a reread:

  1. How does the dialogue in this passage contribute to the character’s place in the story and the general themes that they embody?
  2. What kind of description speaks to you? When are your eyes glazing over from too much description?
  3. How does the author use the show vs tell dichotomy and how well does it work? What did you want to see more of? Less of?
  4. How does the pacing between action, dialogue, worldbuilding, and the inner life of the character work? When does it shine? When is it weak?
  5. What kinds of things make you turn the next page? What piques your curiosity?
  6. If the book is bad, why did you put it down or struggle to finish it?
  7. How does the author use themes or their central thesis to move the characters or build connections?

Ultimately a lot of this is your own opinion, and it’s important to keep that in mind. But even if you don’t like a book but it has fantastic reviews and critical acclaim, it’s worth doing this process to expand your craft. The goal here is to get you thinking critically about your own writing and thus improve your work. For me, I’ve found that rereading has been useful in that endeavor. What do you think?