we should reverse engineer the books we read in order to write better

4 min read

Pick a book, disassemble it, examine it, analyze it in detail, discover the concepts of its structure, produce something similar, pick a new book, repeat.

This week, I’m reading this book called “Decoding Greatness” by Ron Friedman. He talks about the common stories that great achievements come from talent and practice. But he says there’s a third element that I always believed in more. Reverse engineering.

“To reverse engineer is to look beyond what is evident on the surface and find a hidden structure—one that reveals both how an object was designed and, more important, how it can be re-created.”

– Ron Friedman, in “Decoding Greatness

I hear a lot of people saying they abandoned writing because they don’t know how to write their stories. But when I ask some of them what they like reading, they get puzzled or just give me a shy list of bad books.

It’s easy to go online and say you’re an aspiring writer and start getting some people around you eagerly waiting for your books. But if you refuse to read and learn from the good literature that is already written you won’t go too far. Unless you’re a genius, but you’re not. And that would just be an unfortunate exception. I can’t think of a good writer who doesn’t like reading and doesn’t use reading, I’m sorry. If you’re a writer, you have to learn from what you read.

I mean, yes, some people were born with a natural aptitude for certain things. Skills they inherited somehow. There’s also strong evidence that the more you practice, the better you get at something. But reverse engineering is a shortcut, as I see it.

So, the idea is to observe and learn everything you can from the moment you start reading to the moment you finish a book. How does the author begin? Melville decided to make his main character tell us his name, Orwell wanted to start with a bright cold day in April and show us a clock striking the hour. Eco wanted to pay penitence before we were worth it before learning the secrets of the old monastery.

How are we led to the next scene? How does the author make us feel the way we feel? What words, what rhythm, what structure triggers what it triggers? How does the author work with surroundings, landscapes, characters, objects, the plot, the message, the themes, etc? How?

Think of that process as dismantling a complex object made of Lego pieces. You can choose two ways. You can just break it all, throwing the pieces away, or you can go piece by piece, understanding why they are there, what they do, the role they play in the structure, and what they mean to the whole object. And after you do that, you try to rebuild the object your way.

I’m not saying your book and your writing have to be the copy of great works you disassembled, figured out, and reproduced. I’m saying that if you want to be a writer, a good one at least, you have to read actively enough so you can reverse engineer the best of each work you read to learn how to do it. Or so you can choose to go in a different direction.

Yea, it works even with a bad book. That’s one of the reasons why I never don’t finish a book. There’s always something to observe. Something to pull apart. A lucky paragraph. An interesting structure. A nice way to evoke emotions and feelings. Piece by piece, beat by beat, you learn what doesn’t work and why.

But again, you might think that doing that will lead you to create a monster like in Frankenstein. That’s not what I’m saying. Victor picked old body parts and strange chemicals and put them all together in an irresponsible. It’s horror. That’s what we writers do when we don’t know how to start and that’s what makes us quit sometimes. We pick old outlines and structures and parts of books or a genre we liked, and we add strange chemicals to it, then we put it all together without being aware of what we’re doing. Sometimes it doesn’t look like a monster because it’s written in ink on a piece of paper with a beautiful font, but it is still horrible.

We’re not gonna use parts. We’re gonna reverse engineer what works in what we read and use it to learn and write better.

Now, I’ve said too much already. Let me hear you. The comment session below is yours, speak your mind.


  • WithloveMasi

    Agree. It’s like learning to paint, you have to copy. Not exactly, but you have to learn the techniques the masters used. The same with writing, it’s a constant reading and decomposing process to build something of your own that makes sense and is attractive to capture readers.

    • João

      Yes! And it’s interesting that you’ve mentioned painting because it involves exactly what you said, technique, finding the best way to produce an effect and a color. That’s the process. And I noticed that for drawing is the same too, you start to find patterns and you start understanding how to create something from those patterns. Nice!

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