What Writers Learn from Reading

Reading other writers’ work is a central part of developing as a writer. Without absorbing the facts of what others have done well—while trying not to despair at any difference in skill between ourselves and the other writer—we can’t move forwards in our own work. Studying deft techniques can spark new ideas for styles, techniques, and even genres we may have never considered attempting.

When I first read Pamela Colloff’s longform feature, “The Innocent Man,” I already knew the word count. 28,000 words! I marveled. How could anyone need such space for a magazine feature? Weren’t the extra details supposed to be eliminated? Of course, as I sat down to read, I began to realize the scope of what Colloff has accomplished. In only 28,000 words, she weaves a complex narrative spanning decades and divorces, navigating access issues and conflicting accounts to arrive at a truthful, moving account of a man who lost (and regained) his son.

A photo from the Michael Morton trial, which Colloff covers in detail.

As Colloff mentioned later, she introduces mundane details like Christine and Michael’s battle over the marigolds early in the story so the unsuspecting reader jumps when the flowers become a central issue in the Morton trial. I found Colloff’s selection of detail incredible; the story never feels loaded with too much sensory information, nor does it seem too dry and factual. Even Colloff’s summaries of events appear at the perfect time to clarify information for the reader before progressing to the next scene or narrative arc.

Colloff’s use of the non-chronological narrative blew my mind. Even though she alternates between past and present, even giving background on key players such as Officer Boutwell, she never lost me once—and I tend to be the type of reader who has to be led.

By using specific dates and meticulously researched time markers, Colloff was able to guide the reader on a time-traveling journey that was thrilling rather than disorienting. I hope to someday accomplish something similar; I tend to write in chronological order because it is safe, but “The Innocent Man” showed me how useful and engaging non-chronological narratives can be.

So, whether you’re reading Lolita or The Princess Diaries, pay attention to the writer’s techniques, pacing, style, etc. You never know what you’ll like until you see it in print, so you can try it out for yourself.

[Note: This blog post was originally published on my first attempt at a blog on September 29, 2014]

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