When I read a story, I usually try to avoid criticizing it too much while I am reading it. Aside from noticing glaring errors, I generally try to give the writer the benefit of the doubt and enjoy the story that is there. This makes it more enjoyable to read the book, but it doesn’t help improve my own writing.
To improve my writing, I like to break down the books that I really enjoy reading to see what it is that that particular author does to make the book work that way. This process can be done with any book, but you have to make a conscious choice not to do it when you simply want to read a book for fun. Here are some of the things I look at:
Writing style: How are things written in the book? Does the author use a lot of first person? Do the characters have internal monologues? What kind of descriptive phrases does the author use, or does the author avoid descriptions? What is the ratio of dialogue to descriptions? Does the author give us information the characters do not know? Is the story written from the first or third person? Is the story written in past or present tense?
Characters: What type of characters are in the story? Does the author write from multiple perspectives or just one? Are the characters likable or relatable?
Plot Construction: How is the story constructed? Does the author start with a prologue, flashback, or flash forward? How does the story progress? Is there a clear opening, climax, and conclusion; or is it a simple narration? Is there a mystery to solve? Is the story more of an adventure or is it an ordinary story?
Breaking down these elements in your favorite stories helps you write better in your own. For example, I really prefer my books to have a point, so I tend to like adventure stories better. I am less interested in stories that are simple windows into time. This is one reason why I tend to dislike books on reading lists, such as the list of Time’s 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century. One of my favorite books of all time for writing style? Inkheart. However, I am not as big a fan of the plot, because I dislike stories that cross universes.
Do you use other writer’s work as a critique for your own?