Of all the ways to learn how to write, the one that gets the least love–perhaps because it’s the least glamorous–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. Ask any famous author and they’ll give you a good, long stack of books that influence them, or influenced them, or that they just plan love. Truly, you can’t write well if you don’t first learn how to read well. You can try all the short cuts you like, but none will serve your writing the way reading–relentless, restless, broad reading–will.
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. Reading books is probably partly why you like writing.
One of the best parts about learning to read like a writer is that it doesn’t require any fancy tools. Unless you count your brain and your opposable thumbs, which to be honest, are pretty 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 here: “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 wider lens. 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 big 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, or if you’re still wondering why reading like a writer is an important tool to possess for your own writing practice, here are a few places to start:
“How Mapping Alice Munro’s Stories Helped Me As A Writer“
“How to Read Like a Writer” and Reading 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
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