Studying the Classics

Using classic novels to study creative writing is an easy way to learn plot and character development. I have found them most beneficial for character development as there is rarely a character that feels underdeveloped or there for no reason, each character is key to the plot. The characters are in control of themselves; the world affects them, but they make choices that drive the plot forward. This is an important trait in literature.

I have seen the question “how do I study the classics” many times, and the answer is simple: read them. What I do is use a light-coloured pen or pencil and make notes in the margins: did the author do something I like here? Note it and flag it with a sticky note. While I’d never write in my new books (unless I am writing on sticky notes) in the classics I like to write in the margins. I will note when an author used a single word to describe something and it has an emotional impact: how did that word choice impact the sentence? Would another word have had the same impact on me as a reader? If not, why?

The key to learning from the classics is to read actively. Read with the desire to learn, to see the tricks and techniques that the author is employing. Is there a jump in time? How did they make that transition seamless? Or perhaps there was a jump in time and it felt jarring–stop and consider why. For me, it is important to consider these points in writing, not just mentally. If I don’t write it down it doesn’t stick with me. If I write a quick (even illegible) note in the margin it is something that is more likely to remain ingrained in my mind. I don’t necessarily go back and read through these after I write the notes, but the act of writing them down is key for me.

It is important, though, to pick classics that you enjoy. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, is one of my all time favourites. I have three editions and have read it several times. This is a book that I learned a lot from. Each time I read it I pick up something new—I see a small twist that will affect the outcome of the book that maybe I didn’t notice the first two times, and I will stop and consider that twist, that moment the character made a choice that would ripple throughout the book. But, when I read Vanity Fair, by W.M. Thackery, I could not get into it. I not-so-affectionately refer to this book as my literary Everest. There is no sense in rereading this one because I am not picking up on the nuances, I am just trying to survive it. There are so many obvious things in this novel that I missed simply because it wasn’t a novel I could get invested in: I couldn’t follow what the characters were doing or the significance of those actions because I couldn’t remember who they were. In this case, there is no sense in reading on for the sake of learning about writing, because I’m not learning here.

I think everyone finds their own way to most effectively study the classics. I always like to have a pen in hand though and make notes or comments throughout the pages. It pushes me to read more actively and consider the way in which the novel is being developed and why it is being developed in that specific way. All of this will dramatically aid me when I go to write that next novel. I can pull on this information and create twists and turns through the characters that otherwise I may not have known how to do.

Seeing the information in creative writing textbooks in action is important in being able to implement it in your own and there is no better place than the classics.

Deanna Roney is an AU graduate who loves adventure in life and literature. Follow her path on the writing journey at