Monday, June 15, 2009

Learning How To Read

There are at least two ways to read: the reader's way and the writer's way. The reader reads to get an emotional experience out of a story. The writer reads to dissect it. Being able to read both ways is essential because both ways teach you how to write better.

I can't provide many tips on how to read as a reader. All I'll say is that for me it's like turning off a switch. I have to be present to the book and not think about myself or my work. The learning that takes place from this way of reading occurs after the reading is done, when I can ask myself things like, Why did I enjoy the book? What did I enjoy about the book?

When reading as a writer, I've come up with a longer list of things I look for, techniques that I can use (or steal, if you'd rather). While the first way of reading addresses why and what, the second way of reading often addresses how.

1. Style-How do my favorite authors create a writing style that I enjoy? For me, I'm usually drawn to lyrical writing, writing that flows continuously. I try to look for how writers start and end sentences and paragraphs. I look for how they punctuate sentences and what kind of structures they use for these sentences. I look for the type of vocabulary they use, the sounds they use, the level of formality they use.

2. Structure-How do writers organize their stories? How do they introduce back story and conflict? Where and how to they reach climactic high points? How do they start and end stories?
3. Characters-How do great writers create characters that jump off the page? Critic Harold Bloom often uses a term that I connect with well. In talking about great characters, he often says that stories can't contain them. Why are people so drawn to Hamlet and Lady MacBeth? What makes Charles Dicken's characters so inspirational for people? Comparing characters and finding passages where a story can't contain the character usually reveals to me what makes them particularly vivid.

4. Subject matter-While I believe that any subject matter can be turned into a great story, critical reading helps me discover the types of subjects that are unusual versus ones that are more common. As an editor, I've really become conscious of themes that EVERY beginning writers seems to want to address: getting cancer, breaking up with a lover, childhood firsts. Stories about any of these subject matters have the potential to be great, but usually they have to overcome that initial feeling of, "Not another one of these." Paying attention to the subject matter of great writers usually makes you see other parts of the world besides those initial points of inspiration. It helps you see that subjects you might not thing of using can truly be developed into a moving story.

4. Transitions-How do writers move from one scene to the next? or one action to the next? What is the connective tissue they put in place so that a reader doesn't feel unintentionally jarred? If a writer is describing an action scene, how does he or she keep it from sounding like a laundry list? If a writer is shifting tenses or point of view, how do they do it successfully so that you're not distracted by the craft?

5. Dialog-How is dialog punctuated so that it feels like a character is talking naturally? What dialog is left out that makes it a distinct thing from real verbal interactions? How are characters differentiated through their dialog? How do writers use dialog to convey other information?
6. Descriptions-Different readers can tolerate different levels of description. How does your favorite writer create a time and place without annoying you?

7. Showing versus telling-All stories-at least all the ones I've encountered have some level of telling. How do writers decide when to tell and when to show? How and when do they show or tell effectively?

I'm sure that as soon as I publish this post, a dozen other items will occur to me. But, hopefully this list triggers some of your own technical difficulties that you can solve through critical reading as a writer. And, though this may seem obvious, I'll say it anyway, only because it's something I often forget: Your favorite writer hasn't necessarily mastered every aspect of writing. Use each writer for their strengths, and look to other writers to address things that you still can't figure out on your own.

Reading is essential to learning how to write, at least from my own personal experience. The more deeply you look at the work of someone you admire, the more you will learn from it. I often reread passages of Kitchen or Anna Karenina or Light In August. Often, just spending five minutes with a book I admire teaches me a dozen new things I hadn't noticed before.


  1. Interesting post. I can't think of anything to add to it.

  2. What a fantastic post, David. You're so right. I'm currently reading a number of authors, one as a reader, two others as a writer.

    Laurie Graham's The Great Husband Hunt is delightful, carefree entertainment as a reader.

    I'm currently studying the O'Connors, Flannery and Frank. Each are so strong, so distinctive. As a writer, reading them as a writer, teaches me, infuses me with the love of the craft, even when I fall waaaaay short of their genius, yet my hope is the touch-luck of the Irish will rub off on me. ;-)

  3. Good morning, Davin. What great thoughts you have going on today.

    I read through a book the first time as a reader -- then go back a second (and third) time as a writer, with all those things you mentioned in mind (along with a pad of paper to take notes!)

  4. Excellent list. Since I started writing, I have a hard time separating reading as a reader and reading as a writer. I tend to analyze everything now.

  5. Davin, this is an excellent post. Truly outstanding.

    Sometimes when I read I'm also looking at what doesn't work. Like Zadie Smith's "White Teeth--something about it felt too forced, too over the top, and I had to really slow down to try to identify where and how it pushed that line for me.

    How do you flip the switch? I have a very hard time getting lost in Jhumpa Lahiri--to me, she is the master and I find myself looking at everything with the kind of analysis you've set forth here. It's more clinic, less recreation. :)

  6. For me, I think it depends on the book. If the book is more literary I tend to read as a writer and savor each phrase and the depth of what the author is doing. If the book is more commercial, I tend to just read it for fun. I just do it automatically. I really don't think that much about it.

  7. Justususus, maybe after you read your new book, you'll have some more ideas. Thanks for posting today!

    Rebecca, yes, I think we all study from the greats hoping that we'll be 10% as good as they are. But, the more we learn, the better we get, and I do sincerely believe that at some point--if we work hard enough--we can surpass our masters.

    Tess, how very systematic of you! I think your way makes total sense. It's my own jealous tendencies that make me judge the book FIRST. Only after I get over it and realize that the writer is probably better than I am can I then enjoy the book. So I think I work in reverse order.

    Elana, I used to have a really hard time too. I found myself being critical of Dickens and Faulkner, and even Tolstoy. But, now I'm at a place where I can enjoy reading again. It makes life more fun, and I do think it helps you to learn in a different way.

    Jennifer, GREAT point about finding what you don't like. I do think that's important since we can learn from other's mistakes just as we can learn from their successes. As far as flipping the switch, I'm not sure how well I can describe it, but I just have to approach a book with a more relaxed mindset. It's almost like a trance for me, where I just have to tell myself the book I'm reading is perfect. There is nothing wrong with it. Then, I can enjoy it and dissect it later.

  8. Davin, I'm sorry I called you David.

  9. Davison,

    I might read "Anna Karenina" if you keep mentioning it. Is Tolstoy the author?

  10. Dexter: A fabulous post. I think it's very important that writers read like writers, and read books we admire with an eye to improving our craft by learning/stealing from the masters. Also, it's important to be critical of even books we like, and learn to spot what doesn't work, and why.

    When I approach a book, admittedly it's usually with a combative attitude. "Okay, brilliant author," I say, "Show me what you've got." The first page or so I'm hard on the poor writer, but once I get past that I want nothing more than to enjoy the book, and only when the writer is pushing me off the page do I tend to notice problems with the writing. And if there's anything really well done, I try to see if it's a matter of craft that I can use in my own work.

    I don't know how to shut off the critical eye. Most of the time, if a book is good I can simply enjoy it as a reader. I wish I could shut off the critic when I read, because it's made the pure and simple pleasure of books elusive. Authors I once loved no longer please me the way they do, and I feel the loss. Woe is I, etc.

  11. I went through a stage where I could not enjoy reading any longer; my analytic mind was too busy deleting adverbs to enjoy the story. I realized, after a while, I had almost entirely stopped reading fiction. (Interestingly, I don't read nonficiton the same way, so I never lost my ability to enjoy it.)

    I thought this was sad, as if learning to paint would make you unable to see.

    Recently, I've been trying to reclaim reading pleasure for myself, and yet, at the same time, also more consciously study what books do right. I think it took me a while to be able to do both together.

  12. For me, now, the mark of a good book is when I can forget about reading it as a writer, and only read it as a reader. If I can't get lost in it, then there's something writerly I'm focusing on more than the story.

  13. "I realized, after a while, I had almost entirely stopped reading fiction. (Interestingly, I don't read nonficiton [sic] the same way, so I never lost my ability to enjoy it.)"

    Yo comprendo.

  14. Lois, Sometimes it depends on the book for me too. If I decide I'm not going to learn anything from the book, but I want to read it anyway, then I rarely analyze it. Or, sometimes the book is so good that I can't help but get lost in it.

    Rebecca, No worries at all! Justus and Scott get my name wrong all the time. Just look in the comments! :P

    Justus, I think very highly of Anna K., as you know. I'm sure it's not for everybody, but it is something I love deeply. Even though I strive to originality, I admit that most of the time I only want to be able to write another Anna Karenina so that I can enjoy reading it.

    Scott, I think it's that sad lacking that I felt that made me learn to read for pleasure again. I missed my books. I missed being able to see them and experience them.

    Tara, I had the same experience. I took me a few years to be able to read as a reader again. It was actually a big relief when I could do it, though.

    Beth, that's an excellent point. Yes, I think some writers write in such a way that you can't help but get lost in the story. I don't think you have to write that way to be "good" because different styles exist, but it is definitely a good way to go. I realize every once in awhile that I'll write a line that automatically evokes the experience and I can't help but get a visual or sound--something beyond the words on a page. I try to do that whenever I can.

  15. i love the title of your blog! will definitely be catching up on your posts.

    yeh i agree with justus, very interesting post

  16. When I'm reading, I rarely consciously analyze the book unless something jars me like a pov switch mid-scene. Afterward, some books replay in my mind while others are forgotten. The ones that stay are the ones I study.

    Transitions are tough for me. Mine tend to need smoothing out.

    Thanks for a great post!

  17. This is for you, Devon:

    "We keep talking of books, and when I tell him that 'Anna Karenina' is my favorite, it seems to have the effect 'I'm not wearing any underwear' has on other men."

    The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing - Jane

  18. I just keep on reading until something really jumps out at me and thrills me in a new way. Then I work out what it did and why. I abstract a template, like e.g. first person pov, moral tale, simple lines etc... Then I take that and see if I can jump-start something of my own with it. I've got a bunch of them, written down in the old ideas book.

  19. Dude,

    Great post. I am more likely to read as a reader when the book is well written. That's when I get lost in it and allow the story and the prose to take me away.

    Poorly written works are more distracting, and that's when my writer's eye opens up and stares at the mistakes.

    I don't spend time dissecting a work, but some books keep me thinking about them after I finish (e.g. THE ROAD). It's rare that I have time to dedicate to re-reading books.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.