One of the first things I learned in a fiction writing workshop was the phrase “reading like a writer.” The term was popularized by Francine Prose’s work of the same name. Learning how to read like a writer is crucial, because a writer’s work involves continuous growth and change.
Reading like a writer is a bit different from reading only for pleasure: it means dissecting a piece of literature, analyzing the structures and elements that give it its impact. (Of course, this work can coincide with the pleasure of reading, and it usually does!)
Reading is like entering a doorway into someone else’s story. Reading like a writer means examining how the doorway was built on the way in.
Think about it this way: reading is like entering a doorway into someone else’s story. Reading like a writer means examining how the doorway was built on the way in.
If you’re wondering how to make sure your reading enriches your writing, or simply how to become a better reader, we’ll cover the basics in this article.
With attention to detail and a keen literary eye, anyone can learn how to read literature like a professor. Even better, let’s learn how to read like a writer.
You must be reading, always.
Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river. ―Lisa See
If you want your writing to have readers, you must be a reader yourself.
And not just a casual reader. Not just a reader of news or science journals or even this blog. You must be a reader of books, literary journals, and essays on writing. Read in different genres: screenplays and poems, novels and lyric essays, and so on.
As writers, we must enter the broader literary conversation.
You may not write in these other genres, but writers have something to learn from every work they read—including both wonderful and terrible works and everything in-between. As writers, we must enter the broader literary conversation, or else our work will go unnoticed. Read voraciously, search for inspiration, and never stop learning.
Phew, OK. Now that I’ve said that, let’s get down to business. What is reading like a writer?
What is Reading Like a Writer?
Reading like a writer means being impacted by a piece of literature and investigating how the writer did it.
Reading like a writer means being impacted by a piece of literature and investigating how the writer did it. Successful works of writing succeed for different reasons―a distinctive voice, moving storytelling, an empowering message, etc. Writers don’t achieve that recognition randomly: they earn it by crafting every plot point and character, every stanza and line break, with care and precision. As a reader-slash-writer, it’s up to you to pay attention to these craft elements, and how they contribute to the work as a whole
Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the work you’re reading. Quite the opposite. Reading like a writer simply adds an extra dimension to that enjoyment: you can appreciate a work for both its entertainment value and its literary merits. In fact, every creative field has this seeming-paradox between enjoyment and criticism. Movie critics, for example, have to unpack a film’s plot, dialogue, set design, lighting, characters, filmography, acting, and narrative pace, among other things, and doing so only deepens their interest in cinema. Similarly, if you’ve seen the movie Ratatouille, you’ll remember Anton Ego, the dour food critic antagonist whose goal, it seems, is to drive restaurants out of business. His work requires a very delicate palette, unearthing the subtlest flavors of what he eats; and despite his overdeveloped “ego” from personal traumas, the end of the movie makes his intense love for food quite apparent.
Similarly, anyone who wants to grow in the writing world will have to read others’ writing with openness, curiosity, and an appreciation of craft. You’ll like reading more, so dive in!
Reading Like a Writer: An Example
What makes a certain piece of writing great? Well, it depends on whom you ask. There are, in my mind, three different readers: casual readers, lit critics, & creative writers. They would say the following about Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre:
Casual reader: Jane’s story is very relatable, especially to women who survived their teenage years, and the story’s elements of romance, mystery, and coming-of-age make Jane Eyre enjoyable to read.
Literary critic: Jane Eyre pulls inspiration from a variety of sources: the Victorian-style romantic bildungsroman meets the 5-stage set-up of Ancient Greek theatre, appealing to both a common and an educated audience. Some of its construction is rather clunky―for example, Jane’s transition into a stable adulthood is punctuated by Rochester’s blindness, an event which feels more deus ex machina than hearty, self-sustaining bildungsroman. For all its narrative lapses, Jane Eyrestill stumbles its way towards success.
Creative writer: Jane has a compelling pluckiness, and her story of chasing a life worth living—however overwritten in places—is timeless. Her heroic vulnerability and reclamation of a female self are what make this story so empowering, and while Jane’s feelings are often verbose and expository, each word nevertheless manages to feel necessary in most passages.
All of these responses are valid interpretations of Jane Eyre’s literary merit and faults. What’s the difference between these three? Each has a different goal for understanding what makes Jane Eyre a great work of literature. The casual reader is primarily interested in the story’s relatability and entertainment value; the literary critic, who knows how to read literature like a professor, looks for ways to situate this work in its broader literary context.
The creative writer must do both the job of the critic and of the casual reader.
What makes reading like a writer different? The creative writer must do both: the job of the critic and the job of the casual reader. Writers must research and predict what makes a work successful while also engaging with the work on a personal level, requiring extra attention and time to reflect on the work itself.
Yes, reading like a writer is extra work. But it’s necessary work to the writing practice. By observing the strategies writers employ to tell convincing stories or write entrancing poetry, you equip yourself with the knowledge to perform these strategies yourself.
Read Good and Bad Writing
Despite hammering this notion that you need to read constantly, I haven’t paid much attention to the types of work you should read. Naturally, you’d assume that reading Dickens’ Great Expectations is more valuable than reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
Quite the contrary. Reading “bad” writing (or, at least, works that are culturally considered “bad”) helps inform what you shouldn’t do as a writer. This is especially true for writers who are new to the craft, but it also helps seasoned writers refresh themselves on the elements of great writing.
Take a look at this great article on examples of bad dialogue. Most of the examples are hard to read, awkwardly constructed, and a bit cringey. Can you explain why some of these examples are bad writing? If you can, you’re reading like a writer.
When I ran writing workshops at my university, the most successful exercise was to “write a bad poem.” We’d spend some time discussing the elements of bad poetry―clichés, melodramatic imagery, awkward rhyme schemes, etc. Then we’d spend another 20 minutes writing bad poetry, letting ourselves be reckless and thoughtless on the page.
This workshop always made for great discussion. After a poet read their intentionally awful poem, I’d ask what made the poem so bad, and the workshoppers’ responses always surprised me. They’d dig deep, find things to correct, and suggest alternative ways to make the poem better. They were reading like a writer, even though they’d only heard the poem read to them once. Everyone learned a lot from this!
The point: you can learn something from every piece of literature, good and bad. Read books that are entertaining and exciting, but also read books that are unexpected, outside of your genre, or culturally frowned upon. The broader your literary horizons, the more tools in your writer’s toolkit.
Put These Skills to Work with Writers.com
The more you read like a writer, the more ideas you’ll spark. When one of these ideas turns into a book-length project, write it alongside Writers.com. Our classes provide the structure and education you need to turn concepts into masterpieces. Take a look at our upcoming class schedule, then get writing―and reading!
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