How to Do an Author Study and Learn From the World’s Best

Abi Wurdeman
June 16, 2024

All writers need guides—authors who are further along in their publishing journey and can light the path for others.

At least one of these guides should be a mentor you actually know in real life. You know, someone you can call for advice when the only agent interested in you thinks zombies would really spice up your historical romance.

But you can also turn to authors you’ve never met for insight, including authors who’ve been dead for a few hundred years.

All it takes is conducting an author study.

See, we can learn a lot about the craft and business of writing just by researching the artists who have gone before. Author studies can inspire our own processes, make us better writers, and even the most successful suffer setbacks. 

If you’re ready to be inspired by your favorite author, keep reading to unlock the process for conducting an author study. We’ll discuss everything from analyzing their work to researching their life.

Most importantly, you’ll find out how to apply what you learn to your own journey.

Let’s hit the books.

What is an Author Study?

A person studies in the sunlight coming through the window of a dimly lit room.

An author study is something you hear about most often in the context of school. Teachers assign author studies or design an entire unit around a particular author as a way of helping students engage more deeply with their reading and learn from the writer’s techniques.

But aspiring authors also benefit massively from this exercise.

An author study involves researching and analyzing the life, career, and works of a specific writer. It’s a way of seeing the whole picture, from the personal experiences that shaped their writing to the decisions that led to their success.

What’s the Point of an Author Study?

One of the biggest perks of conducting an author study is that it helps you put your own efforts into a larger context.

Did a family crisis derail your writing routine for an entire year? Has your manuscript been rejected by eight different publishers? Did your writers’ group lovingly tear your outline to shreds?

When there’s a major interruption to your progress, it can feel like that one event defines your entire attempt at authorship. But when you conduct an author study, you see these same experiences as anecdotes in interviews or blips on Wikipedia pages.

Aside from the validation an author study can provide, the research also helps you build skills and improve your systems. You’ll make practical discoveries, like:

  • How they studied writing and improved their skills
  • Their most effective narrative techniques
  • How they overcame roadblocks and adversity
  • What their routine is and how they stay motivated
  • The decisions that lead to their success
  • How they built connections with readers and established an author brand

Not all the tactics that worked for them will be right for you, too. But you’re bound to learn something from their experience.

Plus, author studies are fun.

Which Particular Author Should I Study?

A hand pulls a book off a library bookshelf.

Start by picking the subject of your author study. You likely already have some ideas in mind. So let’s narrow it down based on the type of knowledge that’s most likely to help your career right now. 

Possible priorities might include:

Skill - Maybe you’re trying to work on character development or create a unique narrative voice, and you want to learn from an author who’s really nailed those skills. Or perhaps there’s a writer whose books are flawless overall, and you want to find out how they became such a rockstar.

Genre - Who’s famous for innovating your chosen genre? Whose books are dominating the category right now? Who wrote the book that made you fall in love with the genre in the first place? All those questions are worth asking when you consider potential subjects for your author study.

Journey - Are you getting into writing after a long career in law? Or wondering if it matters that you didn’t go to college? Maybe you want to see what it would be like to build a career self-publishing e-books. Fund a successful writer who has traveled the same path.

Adversity - Whether you’re trying to write while working full-time and raising kids or your debut novel fell flat, you can learn a lot from an author who’s lived and thrived through the same setbacks.

Success - Who has the career you want? That might mean bestseller status, awards, a passionate fanbase, a history of defying conventions and still raking in sales… whatever the dream happens to be for you.

If you have no idea what you want to learn right now, that’s fine. Pick one of your favorite authors and start there. I can just about guarantee you’ll learn something.

How Do I Research an Author?

A person sits on a living room floor in front of a coffee table, looking at a laptop screen and writing in a notebook.k

Once you’ve chosen the subject of your author study, you’re ready to get to work.

So what does this look like exactly? What should you be trying to find out and where do you find this information?

Let’s start by setting some goals.

What to Look For

A little planning never hurt anybody, so go ahead and make a list. Write down all your most burning questions—the questions that motivated you to research this author in the first place.

Beyond those queries, here are a few more worth investigating no matter what your research goals are:

  • What was their upbringing like?
  • What inspired them to become a writer?
  • How did they learn how to write?
  • What setbacks did they encounter and how did they overcome them?
  • What does their writing routine look like?
  • What seem to be the key decisions that led to their success?
  • What do/did they do to nurture their creativity and build on their skills?
  • How do/did they promote their work and connect with readers?
  • Who are their writer friends and mentors, and how did they build those connections?
  • What books are they reading?

Where to Look

Your method of research will depend somewhat on the author you’re studying. 

If you want to explore the background of a writer who’s been dead for a while, you’ll probably find most of your information in biographies, autobiographies, published journals, old news articles, and contemporary essays analyzing their work or life story.

For an author who still walks among us, your first order of business will be following them on social media, as long as it’s not detrimental to your mental health. If a post about a packed book signing has you drowning in feelings of inadequacy, take a step back.

You can also turn to online articles, interviews, podcast appearances, news stories, and the writer’s own website for your author study. If they’ve written a memoir or writing instruction book, definitely check it out.

Analyzing an Author’s Writing Technique

A beam of light shines onto the pages of an open book.

All the research we just discussed will help you fill in a lot of key information for your author study. You’ll hopefully learn a ton about their life, career, and reputation.

But that’s only half of the equation. You also need to explore the writing itself. That means it’s time to do some reading.

Even if you’ve read and reread this author’s books a dozen times, do it again. This time, you’re going to review their work with an eye for the specific techniques they’ve used to become the artist you admire.

While you’re reading, look for details like:

Character

  • What does the author do to get the audience to care about the protagonist early on?
  • How do they demonstrate the protagonist’s growth?
  • What do you know about each character’s goals, motivations, fears, strengths, and weaknesses? How does the author convey that information?
  • How does the author build tension between characters?
  • How do they convince you that certain characters need or love one another?
  • What details make their characters unique and memorable?
  • Do you forgive the protagonist when they make a massive mistake? Why?

Plot

  • Which story structure does the author seem to follow in this book?
  • How many times do characters make big, irreversible decisions? What are the consequences/rewards?
  • How does the author establish what’s at stake in a conflict?
  • What tactics do they use to heighten a conflict and raise the stakes?
  • How do they balance internal conflict and external conflict?
  • Does the pace change over the course of the narrative? When and how?
  • How does the author grab your attention in the beginning of the story?
  • What makes the ending satisfying?

Setting

  • What sensory details does the writer use to draw you into the world of their novel?
  • What details do they leave out?
  • How does the setting fuel the conflict?
  • How does it shape the characters? What does it reveal about them?
  • How does the author weave the cultural setting into the narrative—things like politics, religion, pop culture, and social class?

Theme

  • What is the underlying message of the story?
  • How does the author use setting, conflict, character, dialogue, and symbolism to convey their themes?
  • Most books contain themes that have already been explored in literature. How does this author make old messages feel fresh?

Voice and Style

  • What narrative tone do they use and how does it affect your experience of the story?
  • Read their work out loud. How does it sound? How would you describe the rhythm, pace, and personality of the narration?
  • What choices did they make to achieve that effect? Look at details like diction and sentence structure.

Drawing Inspiration From an Author Study

A white paper thought bubble on a hot pink background.

Now that you’re positively drowning in insight, it’s time to fulfill the goal that sparked this whole exploration to begin with. (Not that research and reading aren’t their own rewards, of course.)

Let’s talk about how to apply the things you’ve learned to your own strategies and skill set, starting with the craft itself.

Borrowing and Building On Their Techniques

As we discussed, author studies are great for learning new tricks and building your skills. After reading with an analytical eye, you’ve likely discovered a bunch of new strategies for telling compelling stories.

The next step is to consider which of those tactics are likely to work for you.

Some won’t, and that’s fine. The point isn’t to directly emulate your favorite authors but to discover techniques that help you enhance your own writing style.

Identify a few new tricks you want to try for yourself, whether it’s crafting bite-sized scenes to create a more urgent pace or subtly working a statement of theme into the dialogue. Practice those strategies in your manuscript or in standalone writing exercises.

Learning From Their Journey

Review your notes on the author’s life and career, highlighting any insights or tactics that seem most relevant for your own journey.

This might include concrete action items like attending a conference to learn new skills and build connections. It could also mean identifying those little nuggets of wisdom that can offer reassurance during setbacks or guidance when you’ve got a tough decision to make.

Once again, not every step in this author’s journey will be the right step for you. That’s why it’s a good idea to do multiple author studies. The more you learn about the paths different writers take, the easier it will be to trust that you, too, can find your own way to your goals using the specific skills and opportunities you have.

It’s your career after all. Other artists might light the path, but you’re the one who chooses the turns. 

Know Your Options

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On that note, did you know that as of this writing (June 2024), there are over 400 free articles in DabbleU? And we’re still writing them.

That’s how massive this art form is. We have to cover everything from narrative essays to horror stories, romance tropes to magic systems, authorpreneurship to traditional publishing.

The options are endless when it comes to expressing yourself in words. And whatever you write, we’ve got you covered.

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Whatever your journey is, we’ve got your back. And we can’t wait to see you become the kind of author aspiring writers study.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.