Reading to Write, by Eva Polites

Every semester I will have at least one student who asks me, “what can I do to become a better writer.” Students who ask this are looking for the secret sauce. A secret sauce that hopefully does not involve too much effort.

I always answer by asking my own questions. “Are you a reader? Do you read on your own?”

Sometimes the answer is yes. More often than not, the answer is no. My response is always the same, “The best way to become a better writer is to read. Read a lot and read across genres. You will increase your vocabulary and develop an ear for writing good sentences.”

This advice is good advice for authors. As writers, we need to read to know what is current, but we also need to read to increase the tools available in our toolbox. Honing our craft requires reading widely and in many different genres and age groups.

Since I started writing, I read differently. These days I am always paying attention to what techniques authors employ. I look at structure. I look at narrative style. I look at storylines and character development. I even look at the sentence structure.

The following are two books I have read recently. Neither one is a children’s book, but still I picked up some techniques I can use in my own writing.

ove.jpgA MAN CALLED OVE by Frederik Backman

Wow. What can I say?

If you are struggling with how to develop voice in third person (or even first), this book will show you how a master conveys voice. The third person narrative captures the voice and essence of the main character, a man called Ove.

The style evident in the first sentence conveys the personality of the main character. Of course, the reader doesn’t know this until further in. Even though the story is told in third person narrative, the narrative soon becomes the “voice” of Ove. You have to read it, to get it. At first the style may seem distant, but give it time and read to the end of the first chapter.

As a Scandinavian, I will also say that the author nails the characterization of Ove. As I read the novel, I felt like I knew this character. He has the aesthetic of the men of my father’s generation. The author takes what could easily be a stock character and through his craft a unique yet authentic protagonist emerges.

If you are struggling with voice, give this book a read.

Warning: you may find yourself laughing aloud and then questioning what kind of sick sense of humor you have😊


 The-Perfume-Collector-Cropped.jpgTHE PERFUME COLLECTOR by Kathleen Tessaro

If you are working with multiple storylines, this book will give you ideas on how and when to separate and intertwine the storylines, characters, multiple settings, and different timelines.

The organization of the novel is carefully constructed. This makes it much easier to follow the separate stories of the two main characters, whose stories are separated by nearly three decades. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that at no point was I confused. I didn’t have to backtrack and reread passages.

The book unfolded at a breakneck pace and I read the 469 pages in less than two days (during the time I was reading, I cooked all the fixings for Thanksgiving). It was a delight to read a book which pulled me in to the fictional world. It’s been a long time since I read a book so quickly.

The characters are varied and fascinating. The settings are lush. The storylines are compelling. I intend to go back and more closely examine these elements to see exactly what Kathleen Tessaro is doing. On my first reading, I didn’t want to slow down to pay attention to craft. My initial thoughts were that the structure moved the storylines along and that the author was adept at showing instead of telling (that old bugaboo of all writers).

Chapters were clearly labeled with place and date, which made it easy to follow the two story lines. However, Tessaro doesn’t skimp on details. She makes the different eras and locales come alive through her writing. Her characters are clearly a product of their time and their experiences. Instead of telling about backstory, the scenes are played out in full and add depth to the characters.


  1. Voice can be boiled down to the sentence level.
  2. Use headings and chapter titles to clarify time and place
  3. Back up the headings with details to set both time and place for the reading
  4. Instead of backstory, weave information into action scenes

Please share what techniques you have learned from reading.

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1 Response to Reading to Write, by Eva Polites

  1. Wendy says:

    I had seen A MAN CALLED OVE recommended before, but after reading this post I finally got a copy. And you (and everyone!) are right. The voice sings (or maybe in his case, grunts). Thanks for giving me the final nudge.

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