How to Read as a Writer

Reading is one thing. Reading as a writer is something else entirely!

Yesterday I wrote about why a writer must be an avid reader. Today, I’d thought I’d expand on the topic and go into HOW a writer should read. A writer should look for and consider specific things as he or she reads, because while anyone can learn to read–most learn that early on in life–learning to read well is much more difficult, and a completely different monster. A good reader is always asking questions and breaking a work of literature apart. (The grad student in me, most times, just can’t help this!) For instance:

  1. WHEN SOMETHING SURPRISES YOU (IN A GOOD/FUN WAY): A good work of fiction, and not just the whodunits, will have its share of twists and turns and surprises. Those unexpected events keep us readers invested and on our toes! When a great book gives you a thrilling shock, as a writer it’s good to ask certain things. Why didn’t you see this coming? Where did the author lay hints that something like this was in the works, and what techniques convinced you to ignore them like the author wanted? Were there prominent red herrings? Dissecting a work that successfully accomplishes such a difficult task as pulling one over on you while remaining credible is a great way to figure out how to do the same thing.
  2. WHEN SOMETHING BORES YOU: I briefly touched on this in yesterday’s post. It’s important to examine exactly what about a boring book bores you, and why. It could be the pacing, it could be that the characters are poorly developed or simply uninteresting, or it could be that the plot can’t draw you in. Maybe the events just don’t seem important enough to you or to the world in which they take place. Maybe there’s a specific subplot that you don’t like because you’re SO invested in the main story you don’t want to slip away from it (that’s often the case when I read.) Think about what you would do to make that subplot more interesting, or even if you could cut it and still make the story make sense somehow. This is a great exercise to prepare you to be a good editor of your own work.
  3. WHEN A PASSAGE BLOWS YOU AWAY: It’s good to stop after a wonderful paragraph or scene and pick it apart. Why did you love it so much? What made the pacing fall together perfectly? Was it a needed and well-placed moment of comic relief in a tense plot? Was there a fun mix of humor and seriousness? Was the description of the scenery or the character’s reactions so real that you saw yourself there? How did the author draw you in that way? Maybe there was character development achieved so subtly you didn’t even realize it was happening, but now you feel like you KNOW that protagonist a lot better and care more about him or her. You’re emotionally invested. Well, was that achieved through dialogue? Action? My guess is, it won’t have been through strict narration or an information dump!
  4. POINT OF VIEW: It can be useful to contemplate an author’s selection of point of view, and how a different option would have changed the story. Which point of view to use is a huge decision: to let a character tell his own story, or to limit the narrator to one character’s head or several as the story progresses…. These make for completely different tales from the same plot. Imagine what the Harry Potter books would be like if Harry told his story, or if the narrator jumped in certain moments into Ron’s head, or Dumbledore’s. The dramatic irony of knowing what Dumbledore was thinking when Harry didn’t…. the feel of the books would be completely different. Not necessarily better, but different for sure. This practice can help you, before you write, figure out how to tell your story so you can avoid the pain of going back through and changing the point of view later.
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16 responses to “How to Read as a Writer

  1. I truly enjoyed this post. I knew that there was some reason that I love to read just as much as I love to write. The answers to many questions and problems in regard to writing can be found in a literature. Now I know that it doesn’t necessarily have to be good literature.

  2. i’m glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂 it’s so true. one of my favorite quotes is that there isn’t a book so bad that something good can’t be learned from it

  3. toninelsonmeansbusiness

    Another great post. When I was growing up I would read a book and then ask what happened to the characters. Did they all live happily ever after etc. Those questions led me to make up my own stories in my head:) That’s one of the reasons I love to write.

    • I love doing that, Toni!!! It’s actually the reason I refuse to read “Scarlett.” It’s a sequel to Gone with the Wind, one of my favorite books, but Margaret Mitchell didn’t write it! I figure if the original author didn’t pen it, my ideas of what happens to Rhett and Scarlett are just as valid 🙂

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  6. Daniel Anuchan

    I think everyone does this one, if only subconsciously: as I read a book, I try to imagine how the book will end. I’m amazed at how often I find my endings more exciting than the one in the book!

    • that’s a wonderfully fun thing, Daniel! You’re so right: we all do that. It’s a great way to test your creative chops. Thanks so much for bringing that up! It had slipped my mind.

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  8. My problem right now is that I do far too much of this, probably because I’m editing my own work. I’m still reading a lot, but I don’t seem to be able to turn off my editing brain. It’s useful to understand what works and what doesn’t, but I really have trouble just losing myself in a book these days. I’ll get over it, I’m sure, and be able to ignore the issues that a casual reader would gloss over (hello, passive voice!).

    As you said, it’s very useful, but I wish I could turn it off, enjoy a book, and then go back and pick it apart later.

    • That’s a fabulous point, Kate!!! Sometimes we all just need to read for the fun of it and enjoy a great story. You can always pick it apart later if you want to. For sure 🙂

      Best of luck with that! Ugh, a brain in editing mode can be a frustrating thing, for sure!

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  10. sherry alexander

    Analyzing while reading is something I do when a book excites me. I am always wondering what made it so great that I couldn’t put it down.

  11. This is an old post i know, but I just read it and its great – as usual – useful indeed! Have you written on point of view? If yes could you mail me the link just.jazz.singh@gmail.com – if not could you write on it please. thanks

    • I have lots of posts on point of view, and a whole chapter on it in my writer’s handbook. I’ll email you links later tonight. About to head to work…. please remind me if I forget!

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