How to Read Like a Writer: Five Easy Lessons

This is an essay by Erika Dreifus.

If you’re a writer—or want to be one—you must also be a reader. There’s ample support for that point of view. (Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe StephenKing. Or maybe one of these 14 reasons will persuade you.)

There’s a special quality to the reading that many writers do. It’s something that is perhaps best described as “reading like a writer.” The five resources that follow provide some background and tools to help better understand the term, and learn how, exactly, to practice it efficiently.

1. “How to Read Like a Writer”

College professor Mike Bunn states it simply in his chapter for Writing Spaces: “When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of the choices the author made so that you can better understand how such choices might arise in your own writing. The idea is to carefully examine the things you read, looking at the writerly techniques in the text in order to decide if you might want to adopt similar (or the same) techniques in your own writing.” Download the chapter for further explanation and useful illustrations.

2. “Reading Like Writers”

Bunn’s chapter focuses on reading-as-a-writer on the college level. But it’s never too soon to learn these skills. “Reading Like Writers” is a chapter from Katie Wood Ray’s influential book, Wondrous Words, which focuses on teaching writing to younger students. But the lesson is similar: “Writing well involves learning to attend to the craft of writing, learning to do the sophisticated work of separating what it’s about from how it is written.” (Ray’s emphasis) Again, you can download the chapter for more explication and examples.

3. “10 Ways to Read Like a Writer”

If you’re in a hurry right now—no time to read one of the full chapters cited above—consult author and professor Crystal Wilkinson’s blog. There, Wilkinson has described a course she taught for the Indiana University Writers’ Conference titled “Gathering Magic: How to Read Like a Writer.” No, you won’t find all of the course material in the blog post. But as you read it, you will find Wilkinson’s list of “10 Ways to Read Like a Writer.” My favorites include the suggestion to quite literally “circle the verbs” so as to “follow the movement of the story” and to “dissect the writer’s attention to SCENE.” (Wilkinson’s emphasis.)

4. “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide to Annotations”

Annotations are a staple in several master of fine arts programs in creative writing, including the famed program at Warren Wilson College, which Peter Turchi directed for many years. On his website, Turchi provides a discussion adapted from a presentation given at Warren Wilson. Key to understand here: Written annotations compel the writer-who-is-reading to do more than simply think about how a piece of writing works. They require that writer to write about it. Turchi shows how to do so.

5. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

By now, author Francine Prose’s 2006 book is something of a bible for those of us who are drawn to the idea and practice of reading like a writer. I can’t point you to the full text online, but I can direct you to my review of the book for The Writer magazine. A snippet: “Other writers and writing instructors may talk about ‘close reading,’ but Prose actually shows us how it’s done. Again and again, she provides excerpts from published work followed by her own analysis. She looks at words; she looks at sentences; she looks at the language within the dialogue. For Prose, these are the concepts that really matter. “[T]to talk about sentences,” she notes “is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re more often asked, such as, Do you have a work schedule? Do you have a computer? Where do you get your ideas?”

Meaningful and personal. Perfect words to describe the practice of reading like a writer.

What does “reading like a writer” mean to you? Which other resources do you recommend to help others develop this skill?

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Erika Dreifus (Ed.M., M.F.A., Ph.D.) lives in New York City, where she reads like the writer of fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews that she is. Erika is the author of Quiet Americans, which has been recognized as an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding Jewish literature. Follow her on Twitter @erikadreifus.

Photo: Some rights reserved by moriza.

10 Replies to “How to Read Like a Writer: Five Easy Lessons”

  1. I just picked up a book and absorbed it. I internalized its best elements and fell in love with its language, but it was not a conscious process. I let my head and heart work together.

  2. Yes, I agree: It does take work. At least, at the start. Sometimes, I think it becomes almost second nature. There are times when I feel as though I almost have to reset my mind NOT to read like a writer, and simply read without making too many mental notes about how a piece is put together, an especially noteworthy image, etc.

  3. A great discussion of reading like a writer, Erika! If I’m not reading excellent literature, my writerly reading makes me squirm and even curse at some writers’ lazy expressions and plot, sloppiness and inconsistency of character development,and cliche-ridden descriptions. Same with TV plots–and I’ve sworn off “escape” romantic movies. The obviousness, or at least lack of originality in the boy-girl-boy-girl plot, affects me viscerally, as if the sofa is rocking in bilious seas. Rx: Go back to literature, wallow, and learn.

  4. Reading like a writer probably comes naturally to writers. Writers can write volumes whether or not they refer to other materials. Yet, while reading other materials, we just do some kind of analysis on lots of things. I just reallized that writing seems to be natural with some people and reading like a writer too. These pieces of information will obviously help those that admire writing and have not soaked themselves in it. Glad you shared!

  5. I very much believe that there is an important relationship between reading and writing. The ability to read like a or from the perspective of a writer (and vice versa) enhances the experience.
    Thanks for sharing.

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