Writers often say that you can become a better writer simply by reading more. Yes, and everyone from Stephen King to Belle Beth Cooper to your high school English teacher has a favorite way to say “Read, read, read…” as William Faulkner famously put it. But you can save yourself oodles of time by reading more carefully, that is, knowing exactly what you are reading for.
There are categories of careful reading, and scholars who study the process of reading break “knowing how to read” into a laundry list of highly technical language that entails increasingly complex forms of knowledge/skills: semantics, syntactic, conventions and genres, connotations, figures of speech, cultural / historical / literary illusions, intellectual contexts, and receptivity to the imaginative / intellectual / aesthetic and physical delights of the literary experience….
Whoa. Are we writing great literature here? We can be.
Admittedly, this hack of reading more carefully probably won’t help you generate that great, prize-winning article. But it can lead to more successful pitching, publishing, and prospering. So here it is: of the reading scholar’s laundry list, focus exclusively in your better reading on genre. And by “genre” read the definition of genre not as “a composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content” but as a composition characterized by a particular style, form, and content.
Try out this hack by picking an award-winning article in a publication you’d like to pitch or write for and then analyze its style, form and content word by word, sentence by sentence, or paragraph by paragraph as appropriate. For example, ask where exactly does the nut graph occur? After how much detail, narrative, and type of lede? In what order does the article present standard elements such as narrative, exposition, and definition? Does the article include persuasion? Is the article results-oriented or process-oriented, and to what degree? Analyze as well the genre (style, form, and content) of the title, deck, images, figures, and anything else that accompanies the article. (I take about an hour to carefully analyze a 2000-word feature.) Then, in writing a pitch or an article for that publication, try imitating the style, form, and content the best you can given the your own unique story elements.
Of course, imitation is not always the best form of flattery. As George Orwell warns, “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.” Indeed, after such a careful read of an article’s style, form, and content, you might decide to avoid pitching that publication. You might figure out, for example, that you really don’t want to tell your story the way that publication might.
If you do proceed, though, you may find as I have that a pitch or article that carefully imitates a publications’ chosen style, form, and content is much more likely to be the right “fit,” leading to more pitch acceptances and fewer rounds of edits.