Reading like a Writer

I have a friend, who reads a lot but doesn’t write very much, who gets really irritated with me whenever we discuss books.  She claims I’m a snob; she doesn’t understand why I can’t just “relax and and enjoy the book.”

I do enjoy books.  Reading is my absolute favorite thing to do when I’m not studying or writing.  The difference between my friend and me, though, is that as a writer, every book that I read helps me to hone my craft and my art.  It’s not that she doesn’t read well, it’s just that she doesn’t write, and so doesn’t read like a writer.

A writer should not read passively.  When a book is really, really good, I might lose myself in it, but later, when the book is done, I always go back to try to identify just what it was the author did that made his/her book so absorbing.  And when a book is really, really bad, I’m always tempted to put it down and stop torturing myself, but instead, I try to identify just what it is that makes that particular book so unreadable.

So I’ve begun keeping a notebook, a reading journal, in which I jot down my thoughts about what I’m reading at any given moment.  There are a few key elements that I pay special attention to when I read:

  • Plot.  I have a hard time with plotting, sometimes, and I think that the best way to learn how to do it effectively is by seeing what works (and what doesn’t) in someone else’s writing.  How does the author move his/her story from point A to point B?  Do the characters actively move the story along?  Does something external (outside the characters’ control) happen that the characters have to react to?
  • Characterization.  When I read a book in which I feel that I really get to know a character, I try to identify the cues that the author gives me about the character’s personality, motivation, background, etc.  How much of the character’s personality controls the progress of the novel?
  • Dialogue.  Does the dialogue feel authentic?  What kind of tags does the author use in dialogue?  How much slang/idiom do the characters use, and how much formal speech?  How does the author differentiate characters through dialogue?
  • Language.  This is especially important to me; the books that I like the best all employ language in such a way that it emphasizes the meaning of a story, the differences between characters, the mood or the setting.  It doesn’t have to be lyrical or poetic; it just has to achieve an effect.
  • Setting.  How does the author evoke a sense of place?  What details does he/she use to make the setting come alive?  How, when and where does the author insert these details?  In a good novel, the setting can be a character in and of itself; how does an author achieve this?

Most importantly, though, a writer must read, and read a bit of everything.  It’s how we know what’s being published currently, what’s been done to death, what’s fresh and new, what works and what doesn’t.  Just as a doctor or lawyer does research to stay current in his field, so must a writer.

And, too, read because you enjoy it.  Writing makes a great excuse for reading.  🙂


3 Responses to “Reading like a Writer”

  1. 1 marcys April 25, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    Thank you for this very useful, thoughtful post. I always lose myself in books I like, and I toss the ones I don’t. I keep trying to train myself to read in order to learn how to improve my own fiction, but I always forget. These are good, concrete suggestions.

  2. 2 P April 26, 2007 at 5:48 am

    You and I are cut from the same cloth! Years back I used to read just to read (and there is nothing wrong with that,) but it’s probably been a few years where I’ve concentrated on reading ‘good’ books.

    I’m mostly sticking to Pulitzer Prize winners or National Book award winners. I do the same thing…try to identify how a passage made me feel and what words made me feel that way and take notes.

    The duty of a writer is to not only write, but to read and discern. A discerner of secrets! yeah! I like that! (I’m not even sure if that’s a proper word..better check that! 🙂 )



  3. 3 writerchick April 27, 2007 at 8:51 am

    You know, I’m with you on this to some degree. I do like to analyse books to see what make them successful but to me it seems to boil down to two things: either they have very compelling characters or a very compelling premise.

    As you said in a previous post, the rest is craft. The mechanics. Which I suppose I don’t pay that much attention to unless they are badly executed.

    Although, when it comes to movies I can’t help myself. Rarely, can I go see a film without watching and predicting the plot and outcomes. Perhaps it’s more obvious with films for me, I don’t know.


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