Learning to Read
Does the title make you think I’m crazy? I obviously know how to read, or I wouldn’t be able to create a blog, right? Well, not exactly.
Most of the writing craft books I’ve studied recommend reading and reading a lot, as the best way to learn to write. Some of them even suggest that reading widely is more important to my education as an aspiring writer than practicing writing. In his Master Class, James Patterson tells his students that he read ten novels each week when he was in college. But I’ve read all my life voraciously, and I’m still not an award-winning novelist. I must be doing something wrong.
I’ve always read books as a reader. I immerse myself into the story, and if it’s a good story, I begin to feel like I’m part of that fictional world. Sometimes that story world feels more real than my own life, and the last sentence in the book is an abrupt ending to a pleasant interlude that leaves me wanting more. That type of immersion is great if all you want to do is take a break from the real world for a while and enjoy a good read, but it doesn’t teach you how to write.
I was confused. How was I supposed to learn to write by reading? Then I started noticing the phrase: read like a writer. What does that mean? At first, I had no idea, so I researched it.
“When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of the choices the author made so that you can better understand how such choices might arise in your own writing. …” (Bunn, 2011)
Choices? Like what type of narrator should I use? Should I use first person point-of-view (POV) or third? Those types of choices?
“Writing is a series of choices, so it’s important to approach a text as a series of choices and problem-solving solutions made by the author. Narrative design is the art of perception. By unpacking narrative design through reading, and rereading, we reveal not only an author’s way of seeing and thinking about the world but how the author collects their perceptions into an immersive story. Perception is a special, unique utility we all have. No one will ever perceive the world the same way as you, ever. So we all have unique voices, but it requires practice to share our voices with an audience. Established narrative artists have crafted their perceptions in such a way that makes them great storytellers, and by reading their work as a writer we can help ourselves develop and craft our own perceptions for our stories.” (DeCasper)
Now it was beginning to make more sense. I constantly must make choices as I write, but it never occurred to me that some choices might give the reader more enjoyment than others. Then one night I was reading a fascinating book - I couldn’t put it down. It was the first book in a series, and when the book ended, my Kindle offered me the option of purchasing the next book in the series. Without any conscious thought my finger reached up and pushed that button, then I eagerly awaited the download so I could start reading. As I waited a question popped into my mind: What is it that makes some books hard to put down? Is it their characters, their genre, their plot? What is it?
I know – the answer to that question is different for each reader. In fact, it may even be different for each book we read. I love the characters and how they interact in the Longmire Series by Craig Johnson. I love the depth of the fantasy world that Kristen Britain created in her Green Rider Series. Each book is unique, yet I have to believe that these books that are so good they are hard to put down must have similar traits.
“The goal as you read like a writer is to locate what you believe are the most important writerly choices represented in the text – choices as large as the overall structure or as small as a single word used only once – to consider the effect of those choices on potential readers (including yourself). Then you can go one step further and imagine what different choices the author might have made instead, and what effect those choices would have on readers.” (Bunn, 2011)
Now I was beginning to see possibilities. If I could identify what made books interesting and enjoyable for me to read, then I might be able to use some of those same techniques in my work.
“… But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word.” (Prose, 2007)
“Read with questions in mind. Always be asking questions. How did she write this? Why, if you can guess, did she write this way or choose the words she chose? Look at the placement of the words on the page. How much dialogue to description? How does she handle character, or setting, or action? Perhaps the biggest question of all: how would you have done differently? Not better. Not worse. But how would you have handled writing this?” (Wendig, 2013)
Wow. Reading like a writer sounds challenging, but the potential for learning is huge. It would be like going back to school with Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Stephen King as my professors.
“It is helpful to continue to ask yourself questions as you read like a writer. As you’re first learning to read in this new way, you may want to have a set of questions written or typed out in front of you that you can refer to while reading. Eventually – after plenty of practice – you will start to ask certain questions and locate certain things in the text almost automatically. Remember, for most students this is a new way of reading, and you’ll have to train yourself to do it well. Also, keep in mind that you’re reading to understand how the text was written … more than you’re trying to determine the meaning of the things you read or assess whether the texts are good or bad.” (Bunn, 2011)
So, this is a learnable skill. It won’t happen overnight, or without effort, but it’s doable. I’m going for it. I’m making me a list of questions, and when I read, I’m going to answer those questions. Some of the questions suggested by my resources are as follows:
- What is the author’s purpose for this piece of writing?
- Who is the intended audience?
- If I were writing this, where would I go with the story? If the author goes in a different direction (as they so often do) from what I am thinking, I will ask myself, why did they do this? What are they telling me?
- How effective is the language the author uses? Is it too formal? Too informal? Perfectly appropriate?
- Are there places in the writing that you find confusing? What about the writing in those places makes it unclear or confusing?
- What was powerful about the passage? What type of passage was it? Was it description, dialog, character development?
- Why was it powerful? Figure out why. Put it in a sentence.
- How did it achieve that power? What tools did the author use to make it powerful? Was it the word-choice? Was it the rhythm? Was it the viewpoint?
- Are the gestures used in the story stock gestures and clichés? “Clenching her fists so hard she can feel her nails digging into the palms of her hand she forces herself to walk over to him…”
I have read many different ‘how-to’ books on writing. All of them with good reviews and written by successful authors. Each author has a unique opinion on the best techniques to use when writing a book. This has made it difficult for me as a beginning writer to know which of them is right and which method is right for me. As I considered what I might be able to learn through reading like a writer, I realized that this method might also help me understand some of the issues that have confused me so far, so I added my own questions to the list.
- What genre is the work?
- Is the story character-based, plot-driven, or both?
- What structure does the author use? Three act? Four act? Six act? Something else?
- Who is the narrator? One of the characters? The author? An omnipotent being? How well does that work? What advantages did the author gain by using that style?
- What point-of-view (POV) are they using? Why did the author pick that POV?
- What type of sentence structure do they use? Long, elegant sentences? Short choppy sentences? A combination? How does their choice affect the work?
- Does their main character have a character arc? How do they grow by the end of the story?
- Is there a plot?
- Is the story fast-paced or slow?
- Is there a plot arc? If there is, does it mesh well with the character arc?
- Do each one of the characters seem unique and have their own voice? How did the author make that happen? Dialects? Unique traits?
- Does the book have a theme? More than one?
- Is there a lesson the author wants us to learn?
- Does the author make me want to continue reading when I get to the end of a chapter? How did they do it?
What questions would you include in your list? Leave me a comment and let me know (be sure to click the "Subscribe via email" option at the top right of the comment area so you will be notified when I reply). Learning to read like a writer will be a slow process, but it can only improve my writing skills, so the time will be well spent. How about you? Do you read like a reader or a writer?
- Bunn, M. (2011). How to Read Like a Writer. Retrieved from Writing Spaces: www.writingspaces.org/sites/default/files/bunn--how-to-read.pdf
- DeCasper, A. (n.d.). On Reading for the Beginning Narrative Artists. Retrieved from Glimmer Train: http://ww.glimmertrain.com/bulletins/essays/b108decasper.php
- Prose, F. (2007). Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Harper Perennial; Reprint edition.
- Wendig, C. (2013, February 19). How to Read Like a Writer. Retrieved from Terrible Minds: www.terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/02/19/how-to-read-like-a-writer/