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Reading Like A Writer: Why to do It, How to do It, and Why I Often Fail at It

Think Books by Thibodeau PhotographyIn podcasts and interviews, I often hear authors lamenting the fact that due to deadlines and publicity efforts, they don’t get to read as much as they used to. Even worse, when they do get to have time to read, they often can’t simply read for pleasure. Oh, sure, they can enjoy a book immensely, but it’s some ancillary effect because they tend to read with different eyes than fans.

They’ve been behind the curtain. And they’ve seen how the sausage is made (if you’ll let me mix my metaphors—or maybe it’s just the world’s first meat-based magic show?). Instead of simply imagining a story of sword and sorcery, they are also analyzing for plot structure, examining character arcs, and dissecting word choice. But this isn’t simply a consequence of writing a book. No, this transformation was a vital skill that they acquired along the path from aspiring author to published author. Somewhere along the way, they learned to read like a writer.

For example, Michael J. Sullivan has said that when he began to take writing seriously, “I studied the classics and the Pulitzer Prize winners and learned from their style and started to teach myself techniques.” And the Internet is full of books and essays on this topic.

the magic of books by gary's imagesBut why is this such a vital skill for aspiring writers to learn? Well, think about it this way. If you’re getting published, you’re doing something right. If you’re not, you’re probably doing something wrong. But rejection letters, even personalized ones, don’t often tell you what’s wrong with your story, let alone how to fix it. And beta readers might be able to identify problems, but how do you know if their advice is worth anything? The bottom line is that, to a large extent, you’re on your own. It’s up to you to identify where and how your story goes wrong, as well as how to fix it. If you can read your story critically, make the structure sound, and get rid of weaknesses, then your writing will level up. If you train yourself to read everything with this critical, authorial eye, then it will be easier to read your own work with that same eye.

Okay, so how do you actually do this? To begin with, slow down and read actively. Yes, I know. This sucks. I’m a slow reader to begin with, so reading even slower kills me. I hate doing anything slowly. But think of it this way. The first time you try a new exercise or a new sport, when you learn the fundamentals, you go through the movements slowly and carefully. You stay focused and don’t let your mind wander. Soon enough, the practice becomes automatic. Same here. Reading like this will become automatic, eventually.

Venmys Pieaug Library by KarboStart with looking for the basics: 1) identify the protagonist and antagonist and 2) break up the story into the three-act structure. Who is your hero? Who or what is standing in the hero’s way? What is the moment when the hero’s life changes and he is sent off in a different path? That’s the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two. At what point does the hero have all the knowledge he or she needs to undertake the big finale? That’s the end of Act Two and the beginning of Act Three.

Because screenplays (and teleplays) are even more rigidly structured than books, I’ll use Star Wars: A New Hope as an example (and this exercise can be applied every time you watch a movie or TV show. It’s a lot quicker than reading a book). So, who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist? Looking only at this movie, it’s the story of Luke Skywalker. Standing in his way is Darth Vader, the embodiment of the Empire and the dark side of the Force. Now, where are the act breaks? When Luke’s aunt and uncle are murdered, he has nothing holding him to Tatooine. He’s also in danger, so he has to run. His life will never be the same again. End of Act One. And skipping ahead, once the rebels identify the weakness of the Death Star and plan their attack, no new knowledge is needed. The finale can begin, and with it, Act Three.

Star WarsNow, it’s common knowledge that Star Wars follows the hero’s journey structure pretty closely, so this kind of breakdown is easier than most. But that’s exactly what this kind of reading is about: identifying the patterns and underlying structures.

But that’s only the beginning of reading like a writer. Don’t be satisfied with the “what.” Seek to understand the “how” and “why” of a story. For this, you’ll have to look at the finer points. How did the writer create a compelling introduction that hooked you immediately (say with a giant ship and a space battle)? How did the writer introduce the protagonist? Did the author demonstrate the worldbuilding in a big infodump, or through careful drips of details? How did the protagonist grow and change (say, from moisture farmer to hero pilot and a Jedi in training), and at what cost? How did the writer handle physical description and exposition (say by introducing Greedo to show us several things about Han as a person and his past)? How did the writer distinguish between characters’ voices? Why did the author make the plot choices he or she did? How would different choices have affected the story? These are the sorts of questions that should be at the forefront of your mind while you read (or watch movies and TV shows).

At this point, I think I might be losing some of you. I can hear you saying, “I just want to read a story. I don’t want to do homework.” Trust me, I know. I love getting swept away in a story. I love living vicariously through characters. I love staying up way past my bedtime, reading just one chapter more. I get it. This isn’t easy. At least not in the beginning. But neither is committing to a workout regimen or picking up a new sport. But like those activities, it’s worth the effort. I get so much more out of book when I read like this, even if I don’t always read like this. It’s a lot to keep in your head, and you have to stay focused. And the better the book, the harder this can be. If you find yourself not reading actively, just take a breath, re-focus, and keep reading.

Biblioteca (Library) by Miháy BodóBut if it’s still too hard, here are a couple ways to cheat. Let’s say you’re writing a story. And you’ve done enough of these breakdowns to realize you’re having a problem with pacing or characterization. What do you do? Go small. Don’t try to break down an entire book. Zero in on the precise lesson you need to learn.

Go to your bookshelf. Focus on the books you’ve already read. Look for the book that you couldn’t put down or the one with your favorite characters. Now, re-read, or at least leaf through the book looking for the moments that will be most helpful. What was it about the word choice, sentence structure, or chapter length that made the story fly? What was it about the character’s skill, humor, voice, or heart that wouldn’t let you pull away? Be specific. Take notes. Don’t be satisfied with your first impression. Dig in and get detailed. Only then will you be able to apply those lessons to your own writing.

Alternatively, read “bad” books. You know the ones. They’re popular, but you look down on them for being dumb, cliché-ridden nonsense that you would only buy if someone put a gun to your head, and even then, you’d buy the electronic version so no one would know you’re reading it. It will be harder to get sucked into those books, harder to lose yourself. You’ll be able to stay more conscious of the mechanics behind the story, identify the weaknesses, and even think of ways to improve it. You’ll improve your reading ability, and as an extra bonus, instead of just saying that a book “looks dumb,” you’ll be able to lay out exactly why it’s dumb.

But remember this, no matter how dumb that book may be, it still got published. An editor saw something in it and was willing to devote time, effort, and money to get that book out in the market. The book may not have been perfect—far from it sometimes—but it passed some minimal threshold. Learning how to read like this is a great way to help your own writing get over that same threshold and get the attention of an agent, an editor, and readers everywhere.

Title image by Thibodeau Photography.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Nicole says:

    Great post! I do the re-reading-my-favorite-examples thing all the time, and it’s so helpful. From a skills perspective and also just to admire another writer’s craft.

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