Of all the craft elements out there when it comes to writing, the one that gets the least love–perhaps because it’s the least glamourous–is learning the read like a writer. But the truth is, most of us learn to read, and learn to LOVE reading, well before we decide to become writers.
Maybe it’s because it seems so obvious that reading like a writer gets glossed over in discussions of craft. Or maybe it’s because it is such a basic element of understanding the craft of writing that those of us teaching it, and those of us learning it, forget to even mention it, except in passing.
What does it take to read like a writer?
First, it takes an open mind. Second, it takes time. Third, it takes more time. Fourth, it takes a healthy curiosity. And last, it takes discipline.
You probably already love to read. It’s part of why you like writing, right?
One of the best parts about learning to read like a writer is that it doesn’t require any fancy tools.
You’ll need: a) a story, essay, novel, memoir; b) a pen and/or pencil; c) a notebook or sheet of paper; and d) a quiet corner.
Reading like a writer, at the most basic level, involves engaging deeply with a story’s material, from the word and sentence level all the way through to the shape of the plot. One of my favorite methods for doing this is talked about in this article, “The Slowest Reader.”
I do the line-by-line treatment to stories and novels alike, and though it does take plenty of time and brainpower, there’s a certain rhythm to it. Once you’re in that rhythm, you start noticing little things that you might miss during a regular read through–elements like echoes, turning points, character tics, the influence of weather, etc. In a good piece of writing, all of these parts of a story add up to a nuanced, interconnected whole.
The Forest and the Trees
Taking things line by line can and does help to see the bigger picture, but don’t forget to look at bigger picture craft elements from a different lense. For this, I hit a story with different color pens or highlighters, using a color key code: yellow for plot points, blue for character development, pink for dialogue, orange for exposition, purple for scene, etc. As you go through a story using this method, you start to see how craft elements are balanced (or not) to give shape to the story. This bigger picture treatment can be especially helpful if you’re looking at story structures or themes (which often give shape to structure).
If you’re excited to give this a try, but want to read more about how to, or if you’re still wondering why reading like a writer is an important tool to possess, here are a few places to look:
“How Mapping Alice Munro’s Stories Helped Me As A Writer”
“How to Read Like a Writer”
“Mapping Out Your Story” (this one is meant as a writing tool, but the tenets can be applied to reading as well)
“Material” in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
One last thing…
If you’re in the Western Massachusetts area and want to learn more about how to read like a writer, I’m teaching a one-day craft class on the subject at Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop on Saturday, October 6th, from 1-4pm. During the class, we’ll be parsing our two very different pieces of prose, and looking at them from the micro to the macro level. You can expect to leave the class with a better understanding of interpreting any text, as well as with tools and ideas for applying what you’ve learned to your own writing. I’d love it if you joined me!