Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

How to Read Like A Writer

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by Kristen Coros

This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write.” – Stephen King

A significant part of a writer’s development involves reading: in order to be able to produce written works, we also need to be consuming them.

As with our writing, we ought to approach our reading endeavours with a measure of skill and intention. The following are some tips to help you achieve this. A number of them have been culled from Francine Prose’s 2006 book Reading Like A Writer, which we recommend for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.

Read closely. For writers, there are many things to make note of when reading, including but not limited to:

  • Point of view
  • Narrative voice
  • How plot is developed
  • How character is developed
  • How sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are structured
  • Word choice, and how this serves style and rhythm
  • When figurative language (metaphor and simile) is deployed, and to what effect

Read Repeatedly. In order to notice all of the above, you may have to read a text multiple times. This is especially true because we tend to get caught up in good fiction, becoming far more interested in the characters and their lives and what’s going to happen next than in how the story is constructed. We shouldn’t resist this effect, because we don’t want to jeopardize the pleasure of reading in our effort to make it a learning activity. A solution is to let a book wash over you first, and return to it later to study.

Read With a View of The Forest. Some of us have the combined gift/curse of being highly attuned to detail. We’ll remember all the tidbits in a story—exactly what the characters said, what they ate and wore—but we might flounder when asked what it was about. We should challenge ourselves, as readers, to pull back and see the whole (what Adler and Van Doren, in their meta-tome How to Read a Book, term “the unity”) by trying to express a work’s overall message or themes in a sentence or two.

Read Widely. Or as Francine Prose puts it, “omnivorously.” Regardless of what you write—literary fiction, historical, genre, nonfiction—aim to read in all of these areas. You can learn something from any piece of written material. In some cases you’ll learn what you want to avoid doing in your own writing, which is itself a valuable lesson.

Read in Other Languages. If you’re lucky enough to be fluent in a language other than your native tongue, you’ve probably noticed how languages inform and enrich each other, making you a more playful and flexible writer. If English is all you’ve got, you could still try translating sections of a foreign masterpiece in the original—an activity apt to be slow and painstaking, but enlightening.

Read With An Eye For What Works… It’s of course good to read with the ability to identify the shortcomings of a given text, but it may be even more useful to pinpoint its strengths. Did the book you just finished have beautiful descriptions, so clear and vivid that you could feel the hot wind, see the dew trembling in the flowers? Did the author pull off a 120-word sentence with aplomb, or did he or she make you care so deeply about the characters that you feel their absence now that the book’s ended? Was the dialogue pitch-perfect?

…Then Steal It. We don’t really mean that, do we? Well: yeah, we sort of do. We’re talking not about plagiarism, but about appropriate creative borrowing. For our purposes as readers and writers, you may find it helpful to do a patterning exercise. Take a passage that wowed you and try to write an equivalent-length section of your own in which you closely match the length of each sentence or the pattern of the dialogue or the style of exposition—whatever it is that you so admired—using different subject matter, characters, and words, of course. The resulting piece may not make it into your work in progress, but exercises of this sort do help hone the implements in your writer’s toolbox.

Lastly, Read for Courage. Writing can be demoralizing. Sometimes reading can too, if we become intimidated by what we read, and begin to despair of ever matching it. Prose offers the following advice:

There are writers who will stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure… The only remedy to this I have found is to read another writer whose work is entirely different from the first, though not necessarily more like your own—a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

The best cure for our doubt, fear and frustration as writers may then be to head to the library or bookstore, where we can marvel at the number and variety of bold, original, funny and beautiful things that have been written.

So, be sure to crack a spine (or, you know, delicately unsheath that e-reader) on a regular basis!

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