The Art of Observant Reading

The world has two kinds of people – the readers and the non-readers. The readers are the ones who wait to sink their teeth into a new book (well, not literally!). Their hands itch to turn the pages as the story unfolds. And, often they remain glued to the book from start to finish. Many even read the whole book in a single sitting. The non-readers on the other hand do none of this. They just cannot be bothered about the brouhaha that readers make over books. Now these two kinds of people could not be more different from each other, right? Well actually, no…Wrong!

Why I say this is because even the most avid reader at times makes the mistake of reading a book hurriedly. That is akin to a non-reader scanning or glancing through the same volume. So then essentially by their habit they are both similar to each other! 

When it comes to us writers, I believe the art of reading is more important than the art of writing. You may have heard it said often enough that a good writer needs to be a good reader first. I would add to that and say that a good writer needs to be an observant reader first. I say this because the kind of learning that we can get by reading the work of more established writers can never be got by writing only. 

I have always been an avid reader. I absolutely love fiction, be it drama, adventure, thriller or any other kind. The reason I love fiction is because fiction can transport me into another world, it can literally make me forget the present. But, when I started writing more, my reading lagged. I was juggling home, a career, and writing assignments and I found that that simply left me with no time to devote to reading. Initially, as a newbie I did reasonably okay with my stories (note the use of the word newbie here). My stories were appreciated, people praised my work and rather vainly I presumed that people loved them. But, I could not have been more wrong. What I mistook for accolades was merely encouragement meted out to a new writer. Readers and reviewers were just being kind to me so that I did not get scared off.

As I wrote more, the criticism started. Oh! It came in bucket loads. Once I became a known name on the circuit of writers (mind you, not because of my exemplary work but solely because I used to participate in a lot of writing challenges and people got to know me) the criticism was harsh, scathing and even downright rude at times. Needless to say, I was shocked. I could not believe that these people, who had been kind to me a few months back, had encouraged me and called me a ‘talented writer’, were today criticizing me. They were reviewing my work and that too down to the minutest detail. What was happening? I failed to understand.

Gradually comprehension dawned (some of it even drummed into my head by friends) that the time to encourage me to write more, to treat me as a newbie, was over. I had been on the circuit for some time so now I had to tighten my laces and produce work that was worthy of both the platforms and the tutelage of the mentors. I’ll be honest enough to say that this is where I panicked. I got scared of writing. I was petrified of being rudely dismissed as just another non-talented wannabe. Yes, some of the reviews and criticism of my work had been that bad online.

But then I introspected. I delved deep to understand why it was that I wanted to write in the first place. Was it because I could reap laurels? Or was I really on a mission to learn, to be a better writer? Once clarity dawned, I decided to fight my fear because I realized that if I did not learn on a learning platform then I would never be able to learn anywhere else. 

So, the first thing I did was to go back to reading albeit observant reading. I picked up volumes of short –stories by celebrated writers like Jeffery Archer, Ruskin Bond etc. and I went through them with a fine toothed comb. Like a greedy sponge I soaked up all that they had to offer. I paid careful attention to the ‘Show’ techniques of the master story tellers. I learnt to incorporate descriptions in my own stories. I paid particular attention to the adjectives the masters used. I learned that different things make different sounds and I learned to incorporate those in my stories. I understood the nuances of using the right vocabulary at the right time. I learned to read from a reader’s perspective and subsequently I learned to write from a reader’s perspective. Or, I should rather say that I learned to deliver. 

Believe it or not but my stories got better. The reviews got less scathing and some were even genuinely appreciative. To give you an example, consider the description of a train scene. This is probably how I would have described it –

“The train honked its way into the plains. I sat in a third class compartment, watching the cows alongside the tracks. There were six other people in the compartment with me. A Sikh gentleman who slept on the upper bunk, a lady feeding her baby, two men playing cards, an elderly man chewing paan and a small mischievous boy.”

The above is how most of us would try and describe the scene. We get right to the point. We try to impart maximum information in minimum words. However, what we lose in the process is the affinity of the written word with the reader. Since, we describe the scene dispassionately; a reader will read it similarly and get bored soon enough.

Now consider the description written by noted author Ruskin Bond in his short story ‘Going Home’ from his work ‘Collected Short Stories by Ruskin Bond’.

“The train came panting through the forest and into the flat brown plain. The engine whistled piercingly, and a few cows moved off the track. In a swaying third-class compartment, two men played card; a woman held a baby to an exposed breast; a Sikh labourer, wearing brief pants, lay asleep on an upper bunk, snoring fitfully; an elderly unshaven man chewed the last of his paan and spat the red juice out of the window. A small boy, mischief in his eyes, jingled a bag of coins in front of an anxious farmer.”

Now anyone reading the above description can vividly imagine the train compartment, a few would even be able to sway to the motion with their eyes closed. Both the paragraphs above convey the same thing, only difference being that the first paragraph tells you about the train compartment and the second paragraph written by the master, shows you. 

And, that my friends, has been my greatest learning from observant reading. That has been my biggest take-away. Although, I am still learning, am still an amateur writer but happily, bit by bit, I feel that my writing is advancing. Whatever I learn from the masters I try to incorporate in my stories to add more depth to them. That in turn has helped me connect better with my readers.

How about you? Do you concur that the art of reading is one of close observation and not one of mere indulgence?
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Sonal Singh

Sonal Singh is the Founder/Director of a manpower search firm called Rian Placements. She dabbles in travel and writing. She believes that life is a repertoire of anecdotes strung together in a colourful array, like a beaded necklace. The various situations that we encounter, the many incidents of every day, make life a melange of tales and conversational tidbits. And, this is what she attempts to capture through her writing.

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