Reading like a Writer

I’m sure you’ve heard one or both of these before:

If you want to be a writer, you need to write.

Writers write.*

You may even be familiar with what Malcolm Gladwell reported in his book, Outliers: in order to become successful at something you need to clock 10,000 hours doing it. It’s a no-brainer that writers should write, but I believe it’s only half of what is needed to hone your craft. The other part of what makes you a good writer has to do with being a reader – a reader of a special kind.

When I started my Master of Fine Arts, I was told that I would never read the same way again, and honestly, I didn’t know what that meant. I could already identify themes, images, symbols, metaphors, similes… I could already tell you who the protagonist was in a story, who the antagonist was… I was not sure what kind of reader I would be when I finished the program, because I didn’t know there was any other way to read.

Then, in my first semester, I opened the book How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. I remember reading along at a very steady, carefree pace until I hit this paragraph, about a hundred pages in, and everything changed. I found myself reading frantically. My heart raced, and my eyes couldn’t scan the page fast enough.

I stopped.

What was this? What just happened?

Turns out, that’s exactly what you have to ask yourself in order to read in a different kind of way. To read like a writer. You must become aware of your personal response to a story so that when something changes in you – when you feel something – you stop and take notice. Then, go a step further and teach yourself something from that experience and you’ll become a better writer.

You’ll want to train yourself to become aware of all sorts of things. The pace of your reading. Feeling like you want to skip over sections. Feeling angry, sad, happy… the whole range of possible emotions. Feeling like you know exactly what’s about to happen. Feeling lost. Train yourself to notice both your positive and negative reactions to a story. Then, use this awareness to teach yourself something about the craft of writing. Ask yourself: what was it about that paragraph, that sentence, that word, that led to this reaction in me? How did the choices the writer made (or failed to make) lead me to this response? Don’t move on until you have at least a little bit of insight.

Learning to read like a writer is essential because the writing of a story is only half of the experience of a story. The other half of the experience comes from the reader – from their response and engagement. It’s important to know how to “craft” that, too, as far as it’s in your power to do so.

In the next few blog posts I’ll deconstruct some passages to give you an idea of what reading like a writer looks like. In the meantime, write, and read, fiercely. Perhaps Gladwell will let us get away with 5,000 hours of each…

* Perhaps you’ve heard the second part of that, too – “Writers can’t NOT write.” I could go on and on about how absolutely unhelpful this statement is, and I will – but I’ll save it for another post.

10 Responses to “Reading like a Writer”

  1. Shannon Morgan

    Yes! I’m having my SCBWI chapter practice this in 2013. In March, we’re looking at this year’s ALA award-winning picture books, then over the summer, we’ll focus on 1 book each month: Newbery Medal, Pura Belpre Author Award, and then Printz Medal.

    • Jen Bailey

      Shannon, you and your SCBWI chapter are going to have such fun with that! While I’m sure all of those books will be fabulous to examine, the Pura Belpre Author Award, as you know, went to poet and author Benjamin Alire Saenz, and I have found his work to be particularly wonderful to read from the perspective of a writer. His lyrical writing was instrumental in my understanding of how rhythm and sound can evoke emotion in readers. I’ll be looking at some passages from Last Night I Sang to the Monster in some of my future posts. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Marissa Graff

    Excellent post, Jen. I think all of us VCFA firsties can relate to your meaningful message. Tweeting your link away!

  3. Mary Pleiss

    Yes to all of this! Last semester my advisor wrote me after a packet and said she noticed I was sounding cranky in my annotations, and she said, “The way you read has changed, and I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it will always be like this.” (Honestly, though, I don’t think she was all *that* sorry! 🙂

  4. Alison Gresik

    A big milestone for me in my switch from “reader” to “reading writer” was when I would have difficulty with a book ~ couldn’t get into it, wasn’t enjoying it ~ and instead of assuming the book was good and blaming myself for being an inadequate reader, I could note why the book wasn’t working for me and move on to something else!

    • Jen Bailey

      Alison – that’s huge, isn’t it? I remember feeling that same way, too – that anything published must be thoroughly “good.” It takes time to build the confidence to look at a published work with a discerning eye. Not everything works all the time, and if we’re attuned to that – if we listen to both our negative and positive reactions when we read – we can vastly improve our craft.

  5. Jane LeGrow

    Totally agree. I aIso think that noticing the way a piece of writing affects you is what drives us to write in the first place. I remember three specific moments in my reading life as a child where I stepped outside the story and marveled at how the author had done it. The first was when Beth died in Little Women. How had someone who’d died a hundred years ago just bring me to tears? The second was when the Dark Rider first appeared on the road in Fellowship of the Ring. I remember rereading the passage trying to pinpoint how exactly Tolkien had depicted pure evil so masterfully that it gave me goosebumps. The third was reading the Count of Monte Cristo in 9th grade and wanting to high five Dumas for keeping all those balls of character and plot in the air at once!

    • Jen Bailey

      Wow Jane – I think that’s remarkable that you made that leap to the writer’s position as a child! I loved it when a book made me feel something, but you know, I don’t think I made the realization that it was the author behind the words who purposefully crafted it that way until much later in my life! Thanks for sharing!


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