Reading Like a Writer

At most of the conferences I’ve ever gone to one of the big “nuggets” of information you hear is to read. Read, read, read, read, READ! This seems like a no-brainer. Of course you need to read. You can’t compete in a market that you know nothing about.

At one conference I even heard the statistic that you need to read 1000 books in your genre/market before you can really write one. That’s a LOT! But okay, I’m up for it. So, I geared up and started reading, hoping that through some magical process of quantity and osmosis I would soak in the necessary tools to write great books.

But there’s a disconnect here (for me) with the advice “Go Read.”

Sure, you’ll pick up some of the rhythms of storytelling, and you’ll get a sense of what you like and don’t like. And by NO MEANS do I want to make the impression that I think one shouldn’t read. I just didn’t understand that the advice “go read” really means:

Go read like a writer.

So, how is that any different than normal reading?  And how do you learn to read like a writer?

First, I highly suggest Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer. She goes through the methodical process of reading a book from the level of word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, character, and beyond! It’s a fascinating book that will help you to unveil the “mysteries” and “magic” of how a storyteller brings you to tears, or has a stunning reversal that was somehow in your face the whole time, or uses language to deepen a theme, etc. Yes, you should absolutely check out this book.

But what can you do now?

Three Quick Tips On How To Read Like a Writer:

1)  Listen to your Reactions: The simplest way to read like a writer is to “listen” to your reactions as you read. Did you get bored? Could you not stop turning pages? Did you laugh out loud? First identify what the reaction is. It could be the reaction the author wants (you cried) or it could be the opposite (you got bored and decided to eat a cheese sandwich).  Once you’ve identified your reaction, ask yourself: How did they get me to feel that? Go back and analyze the writing. What set you up for the joke? What about the sentence structure made your heart race? Why did the protagonist’s actions feel fake? Be a book detective!

2)  Pick a Craft Issue You’re Struggling With and Study It:  If you’re finding yourself struggling in a certain area, use your reading as a way to learn more about it. For example, if you suck at imagery and language, find books that use imagery effectively and analyze how they use it. When do they use it? What does it reveal about character, setting, mood, plot? Then go read books that have bad imagery and ask yourself why it’s bad. Does it distract? Is it out of the voice of the character? What’s the balance?

3)  Try the Post-it’s Exercise: This is an exercise that I’ve found really helpful in getting me to slow down and see why a book isn’t working for me. Pick any book to read and start reading it for pure enjoyment. Any time you find yourself pulled out of the narrative put a post-it note on that page. This could be anything: you started daydreaming, got bored, hand to re-read a paragraph, were confused, didn’t believe a character motivation, etc. Feel free to jot a quick note on the post-it as to your initial reaction or reason for putting a post-it on that page. Then keep reading and finish the book. When you’re done, go back to each post-it and ask yourself WHY did I get pulled out of the book in this moment? The answer might be in the very sentence that pulled you out, or it might have its roots in something set up in the paragraph before, or a page before, sometimes even PAGES before.  It’s fascinating!

There’s a ton of ways to slow down and start to analyze books with your “writer’s cap” on. These are only a couple. But I’ve started to find that the answers to most of my writing issues can be found in the works of other authors. I only need to sit down and study exactly what they’re doing with their words. There are a lot of great craft books out there with theories as to why a book should work and how you should write your book. But sometimes the best teachers are the books themselves. Because this is craft IN ACTION!

I’d love to hear your “reading like a writer” exercises as well. So feel free to share. Happy reading everyone!

4 thoughts on “Reading Like a Writer

  1. I try to read critically, but as Bethany Elizabeth says, you can only do so much of it. My biggest problem is when I’m working on a writing project and I read other people’s work, I find my voice losing its natural rhythm and taking on the rhythms of the writer I’ve been reading. Do you have this problem?

  2. Great suggestions! LIke Bethany Elizabeth I don’t think I could do that for every book I read because I simply wouldn’t have enough time but I find that reading on the Kindle is great because the highlighting text feature helps me to read more attentively. I think the key thing for would-be writers is to have a notebook handy all the time so that you can jot down ideas when they come to you. It’s amazing how useful those notebooks can be when you actually sit down and start writing.

  3. Another suggestion is to not republish stories without the author’s name. Or, as it happens, artwork. You can always use google’s reverse image search to try and find the owner and creator of artwork.

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