You should never need an excuse to read Jane Austen, but if for some reason, you feel like you do, there’s a perfectly good one: Reading her work can make you a better writer. Although Austen only completed six novels in her far-too-few years, both her life and her writings offer valuable lessons for those honing their craft. One way Austen learned was by reading and critiquing the work of others, and we can do the same to get insight from her.
In The Jane Austen Writers' Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-Loved Novelist, Rebecca Smith examines the iconic author’s novels, essays, and letters. From them, she draws useful conclusions and provides tips and writing exercises. In the process, she walks us through illustrative excerpts, basically bringing us on a tour of some of Austen’s best scenes. (Yes, you can swoon over her characters all over again.)
It’s clear that there’s a lot to be learned from Austen, whether you choose to emulate her example or follow her clearly laid out advice. Either way, time spent reading Austen is always time well spent. Below are eight ways that reading the extraordinary work of Jane Austen can make you a better writer.
1. She once laid out what not to do.
You don’t have to trust just your own or Smith’s interpretations of what Austen did well. In her 1815 satirical work Plan of a Novel , which Smith quotes, Austen revealed her thoughts on what pitfalls good authors should avoid. We can safely assume we should do the opposite.
2. She is the queen of free indirect narration.
Austen is considered to be one of the earliest champions of free indirect speech, a style of third-person narration that mixes in first-person insight. As Smith points out, Austen didn’t invent it; she was, however, “the first person to use it so extensively and effectively.” Reading her work shows how it can be used successfully.
3. Her work illustrates the beauty of texture.
Smith highlights how textured Austen novels are, thanks to intriguing subplots, complicated characters, and numerous other elements. The many layers serve to make Austen’s stories more compelling, especially as we see how she weaves everything together. Any writer who manages that feat makes their work richer.
4. Her novels show you can be bold with your heroes and heroines.
Austen came up with a variety of memorable heroes and heroines over the years, and Smith points out how unlikely some of them are. Take Mansfield Park ’s timid Fanny Price or Emma’s sometimes thoughtless Emma Woodhouse, for example. The two show that unique and complex characters help keep a story interesting.
5. She demonstrates how to write a happy ending that isn’t cheesy.
There are people out there who will scoff at a happy ending, but Austen knew how to make hers satisfying. Smith argues that part of how Austen achieved this was by making sure the details weren’t totally predictable.
6. She proves that editing is your friend.
A first draft wasn’t the end of the writing process for Austen. “The most common mistake aspiring writers make is to send their work to potential agents before it is ready,” writes Smith. Like Austen’s, all of our work can benefit from feedback and some serious editing.
7. Her writing highlights the importance of being willing to experiment.
Sadly, Austen was only able to complete a limited number of novels before she died, but she still managed to experiment. As Smith points out, Austen played around with the kinds of characters she wrote about, how she introduced them, form, and more. Follow her example and stretch yourself.
8. She is a testament to practice and hard work.
It is now a truth universally acknowledged that Austen was a successful writer, but that wasn’t always the case. Smith highlights that the novelist spent decades writing and rewriting to accomplish what she did. There’s no guarantee of success, but working as hard as Austen did is probably the best thing you can do.