I have a confession to make. I read a lot. Like, a whole lot. I generally read 80 to 100 (or more) books every year. But I read them for fun. As a way of NOT working. I’m not reading them to learn more about writing.
However, when I was working on my writing degree, I couldn’t read for fun. I had to read as a writer. I had to analyze and dissect and mimic.
Reading as a writer is dreadfully important to improving your own writing. You need to be able to take the most awesome book in the world and figure out exactly how E.L. James made Christian Grey so compelling.
In his essay “How to Read Like a Writer (pdf),” Mike Bunn describes the process like this:
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 different choices would have on readers.
When you choose to read like a writer pick the novels that truly moved you in the past; authors whom you dream one day of being able to emulate. Maybe books you’ve read a hundred times. Take notes about passages from the book you find exceptional and examine them closely. For instance, here is a famous scene from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”:
He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Read the passage a couple times and pick out the lines that sell the scene for you. I notice the short sentences and sentence fragments: “Coldness and damp,” “An ungodly stench,” “Clay floor.” These short sentences form impressions the character is experiencing. They are interspersed with longer sentences which describe the actions of the point-of-view character. Broad brush-strokes. Quick. They make the paragraph move and help progress the mounting horror of the scene. Ask yourself, what do you think of this technique? Was it effective for you? And, most importantly, is it something you would want to emulate in your own writing? What would you do different?
Write while you Read
As an author, you learn to experience writing differently than the casual reader. Movie directors watch movies differently. They notice how each shot is composed, how scenes are stitched together, how the actors’ movement in a scene brings a character to life. An author examines books the same way. They notice the building block of writing and can see exactly how it was constructed. This is what you can learn to do.
It can be difficult at first. It can be difficult to not get caught up in the story and just finish the book. It can be difficult to stop in the middle of the very best parts and start dissecting them. This is why I advise you to do this only with books you’ve read at least once before.
While you read a book, you should keep a reader’s journal. (You can do this even on an initial read of a book, just take notes once you have finished a reading session.) As you read, stop periodically and take notes about what you just read. Dolly Garland has some great advice on what to include in your reading journal:
While you are reading, stop and pause when you come across passages or even lines that make an impression on you. Write down your thoughts about it. Our impressions often change by the time we finish a book, because by the end, we have all the answers (most of the time). To keep an insightful reading journal, record your insights as they happen. For example, when you begin a book, here are some questions you can ask yourself: Was the book easy to get into? If not, what made you keep going? Who was the first character you met? What did you think of them? Then as you continue reading, whenever something strikes you – in a positive or negative way – stop and write about it. You don’t have to write an essay, a mere sentence, or sometimes even a few words or phrases are enough to capture your thought process.
Garland also advises to include the page numbers that you are writing about in the entry (so you can refer to them easily later on), and to also write final impressions of the book when you finish.
Ask Questions as You Read
…this kind of reading is also one of the very best ways to learn how to write well. Reading like a writer can help you understand how the process of writing is a series of making choices, and in doing so, can help you recognize important decisions you might face and techniques you might want to use when working on your own writing. Reading this way becomes an opportunity to think and learn about writing.
Read the kind of books you want to produce yourself. If you want to write Romance novels, don’t start doing close reads of science-fiction novels or mysteries. Good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre, of course. But there are plenty of examples in every genre to choose from which typify that genre. You will get more benefit from reading in your target genre than outside of it.
Here is a general list of questions to ask yourself as you read. You do not have to answer all these questions for every piece. Some of these questions may not apply to every genre. Feel free to add questions of your own, as well:
How does the author transition between scenes, sections, ideas, topics, or characters? When does this work well? When does this technique seem forced?
For a passage that seems very good: what techniques is the author using? How would I use this technique in my own writing? What would I do to make this even stronger? What is a different technique I could use that would give a similar effect?
What is the purpose of this passage in the overall story? Does it seem unconnected right now? Is it critical? Could it be moved elsewhere in the novel just as easily?
What confuses you in this passage? Why it is confusing? What is it about the writing that seems unclear? Is it appropriate to the story for the reader to be confused at this point?
What is the author trying to do right now? Are we in a scene or a segue or something else? How is this passage forwarding the plot (is it developing a character? Giving backstory? Setting up the stakes?)
Are there extraneous details in this passage? If you were to summarize, could you do it in a single sentence? If so, what purpose is the inclusion of those extra details serving? Is it setting a mood? Giving context? Something else? What effect was the author hoping to accomplish with the extra details?
How does the use of language work toward the plot? Is the author using dialect? How effective is that? Does the first-person narrator seem to narrate consistently with what we know of the character?
Does each character seem distinct through their dialog? If not, what would you change to let the reader know who was speaking, even if you chose to remove all the “he said” “she said” dialog tags? Does their vocabulary seem appropriate?
These questions and a thousand more are things to consider as you are reading. Don’t spend too much time on any one entry in your reading journal. You can ask questions about a single paragraph almost indefinitely. Rather, try and choose the most relevant questions to the specific passage you are writing about. If you keep up with the journal, you will have the opportunity to answer nearly all these questions, and hundreds more, as you work through the novel.
Don’t Be Intimidated
It may seem daunting at first to read like this. It isn’t easy. It can be time consuming and make you feel like you never truly get into the novel. It can feel like work. But this process is critical to improving as a writer. I encourage you to read like a writer whenever you can. Even if it is only two or three times a year, the benefits you will see in your own writing are immeasurable.