Thursday, March 24, 2011

Read Like You Mean It

Read like you mean it. You may be saying, "What does that even mean and who are YOU to tell me I don't read correctly?" and this is where I ask, "well do you?"

Read like you mean it. I am a college student and all I ever hear about is close reading. Reading so that you understand the "text" as they say. Reading and marking things up; more than underlining and highlighting, I'm talking annotations, acronyms and yes, underlining and highlighting. They call this "marginalia" and as I stated, close reading. I call it reading like a writer. Let me explain.

It is all well and good to read for inspiration but did you ever question how or why someone has written that beautiful sentence or constructed a paragraph the way they have? How all those elements, the sentence, paragraph, rhythm of the prose relates to the theme of the novel? If you have, you are reading like a writer.

But I think it is important also to use the margins and no it is not because I'm Ms. Jo College. I can't tell you how many times I've read something, mentally noted that this sentence is constructed with the most fluid language I've ever seen, went to sleep and have totally forgotten not only where the sentence was located, but about the entire sentence. That kind of error impedes my growth as a writer. Why? Because I am not actively looking for ways to practice different styles, forms, ways of communicating that may benefit my work in some way, whether or not I use the same structured sentence as Amy Hempel or not it still helps. It is important to annotate and put into practice what you've annotated.

Another way of looking at another writer's work is rewriting it after you've read and annotated the novel. For instance, I've rewritten one of my favorite short stories, "In the Cemetary Where Al Jolson is Buried" by Amy Hempel. This is similar to annotating in that you get the feel of the direction the writer wanted to go, how he/she uses language and it becomes a part of your own writing, but in your own style.

A suggestion for those of you who feel like it is a lot of work when you just want to enjoy a book, read the book first without annotating or underlining. Soak it in. Enjoy it. Then scrutinize the hell out of it later.
Reading like you mean it is essential to writing like you own the language. Now, feel free to chastise and debate me, if you wish. ;-)

Tiffany White is a regular reader of The Literary Lab. She writes literary fiction which is also a testament to her insanity, her thirst for realism at the expense of a successful career. She bites kittens and puppies and wears her socks on the outside of her pants regularly. You can find Tiffany on her blog, The Inkwell.

I am very happy to have Tiffany as a guest blogger today. As an English BA major, I agree with her that reading as a writer can be a really important step in a writer's growth. I never read anything in college without putting in "marginalia." I was always taking notes, writing in my books, discussing the work with fellow students and my professors. Let me tell you, I learned so much about writing by involving myself like that. These days, I've found some of the books I remember the most are the manuscripts I review for other writers. Why? Because I'm taking notes and writing out my comments. I'm thinking critically about the work.

Thank you, Tiffany, for a great post today! I'm interested to see our readers' thoughts on this subject.


  1. I love this idea, though I tend to read lots of library books. Many times I'll pop the library book onto my printer/copier, then mark up the copied page with relish. The nice thing about this is I can file marked copies of favorite samples under specific headings: description, dialogue, etc.

  2. Great post! I've talked a lot about reading like this on my blog but I call it "Reading like a Revolutionary" (because reading can change the world). I think it's really important to remind writers how important it is to read (and read with purpose).

    I also love Laurel's comment of photocopying pages, marking them up and filing them. Definitely going to have to try that.

    Thanks for a great post!

  3. I never mark up novels. To me that's a distraction from the joy of reading. When I finish reading a beautifully written sentence, I don't stew on it...a good read propels me through to the end, then I reflect on the work as a whole.

    I do savor the brilliance when I pass it, and try to make mental notes of why I like it, but rather than re-read the work, I look to other works by that writer. If it's a really good writer, I will continue to see excellent examples as I go deeper into that author's body of work; in that sense I don't feel like I'm losing anything.

  4. I've always been a note-taker too, and my college books are all marked up to show for it. But my favorite thing about reading in e-format now is that I can mark up all of my favorite passages without leaving a mess all over the margins. ;)

    Oh, and @ Laurel, I never thought to make photocopies! What a great idea!

  5. This is a brilliant post. I fear I have to read first and mark-up later...but you have to study to learn...

  6. I've gotten to the point where I'll buy two copies of the books I love so that I can mark up one and keep the other one clean for the more enjoyable reading. I have two copies of Interpreter of Maladies, two copies of Unaccustomed Earth, two copies of Kitchen, and about four copies of Anna Karenina.

  7. Doesn't everyone read with a pen in one hand? There are actually people who don't?

    One reason I love used books is that I like finding previous reader's marginalia. Some people find this distracting, I know, but I don't. It's almost like having a conversation with whoever read the book last.

  8. Scott, that's funny. Other people's marginalia grosses me out.

  9. I never read like this until after I started writing. But once I did, I would suddenly get to an interesting paragraph and think, "I wonder if this was hard for the author to write, or if it just flowed out of them and made them smile afterwards because it had come out so well?"

    I also notice when someone is doing something 'they shouldn't' in their writing, like reusing words too often and other such no-nos.

    I never would have thought writing could change how I read this much. And I never thought reading could improve my writing as much as it has. But if I EVER write in a book, my husband will hang me from the ceiling by my toes. ;)

  10. It is so good to see so many people DO this. I know lots of people who don't and I think, "Why?".

    Rick, the joy of reading is important. But I think mentally noting things can be a bit overwhelming. Whatever works for you works and I'm glad you have found an alternative.

  11. Great post. There have been so many times I've read a passage, love it, thought about it, forgot to mark and later kicked myself when trying to remember where I heard it. I've discovered close reading is awesome and have no problem marking up my college books and non fiction books. Fiction is another story. Although as long as I'm the only one reading it, why not. Though I do admit, I love it when I come across marginalia in old books. Interesting to see how the other person was affected by the story.

    Going back to college has taught me to enjoy books again, really soak them in. Granted I still like my mind candy. :)

  12. @Laurel If you read library books, photocopying is a good idea.

    @Gabriel, Thanks and where can I find your blog?

    @Laura Raemos I'm planning on getting a Nook Color. I guess this whole post will have to change, wouldn't it? ;-)

    @Domey That can be a bit expensive. I am rather poor so one copy is all I can afford. But when I make my millions on my #1 best seller, I guess I can afford two copies. ;-) Also, other people's marginalia saved my ass in this last exam. So it isn't all bad...:-)

    @Scott Some people don't. I know I don't sometimes. I have to remind myself to read with a pen. I guess a Nook would make that easier??

    @Autumn, Good. Everyone should read like this who writes.

    @Robin, sometimes I just want to read but I know it's important to read like a writer. Sometimes the story is soooo engrossing that I just totally lose myself. I know what you mean!


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