This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.
I don’t know about other readers out there, but the first time I read a book, it’s a scrambling sprint to the finish line. I have to know what happens in the end, and I want to know as soon as possible. In reading groups at school, I was one of those children who always got in trouble for reading ahead. To this day, even when reading nonfiction, during a first read, I’m likely to rush through the book to whatever it is I’ve decided is the “good stuff.”
What does that mean? It means my first read is a sort of “gist” reading, where I get a good general idea of what a book is about. Sadly, it means I miss out on some things, many of them (vivid imagery, beautiful syntax, character development) worth noticing and reflecting on both as a reader and a writer.
Fortunately, there’s no rule that says I can’t return to a text a second time to savor it slowly and respectfully after a race-to-the-finish first reading. Re-reading gives speedy readers (myself included) a second chance, an opportunity to digest books more completely and better apply what’s learned to future reading and writing.
Re-reading makes you more observant and aware of how the story unfolds.
When I return to a novel I’ve just consumed like a woman starving for the nutrition that comes from words, going back to the story gives me a chance to be truly observant, to find the cues and clues that the writer leaves along the way to lead the reader through the story; a good plot unfolds gradually, through small details that the writer weaves into every paragraph. Re-reading frees readers from an initial (and understandable) obsession with finishing the book to see what happens and allows them to contemplate how, when, and why characters act and certain events take place. Readers who write can learn a lot about plot construction through slow and careful repeat readings.
Re-reading furthers your understanding of words and language.
Re-reading is a great opportunity to jot down sentences or dialogue that particularly inspire you with your notes about why. Maybe there’s a descriptive passage where you can literally see the scenery, or a couple of lines of dialogue that are hilarious, believable and keep the plot moving along at a good pace.
Singling out and analyzing why these strings of words work for you and the public at large can help you to more effectively use language in your own writing. A second (or third) read through is also a great chance to write down words that you more or less understood in context, but aren’t clear on their exact meaning and look them up. Increasing your vocabulary enhances your reading and writing.
Re-reading makes the knowledge acquired from a book a part of you.
Reading a book multiple times helps make the book and the knowledge it imparts a part of your memory. Since books widen your world view, every book that you internalize through re-reading improves your comprehension of future books.
What’s more, repeated readings will enrich your writing. Why? Because writing isn’t created in a vacuum (nothing is). The words you use to describe the worlds you choose to write about are inspired by your experiences (books that you re-read and remember become part of said experiences). So that then, when you sit down in front of your computer to write, you can call upon the wisdom and techniques of writers that came before, mixing up ideas and characters to make something new and all your own.
Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.
Photo: Some rights reserved by » Zitona «.
T. Lloyd Reilly
Re-reading also allows you to discover the magic you missed the first time.
I Agree, T. Lloyd, that’s actually exactly what I was getting at. After a rushed first read, in full knowledge of what happens in the end, I can relax enjoy the magic of well-placed words. Thanks for reading, and commenting! I really enjoyed your guest post “Read? Why? I’ll just wait for the movie!”
You’ve obviously spent some time “reading like a writer,” Chris. Great advice!
Thanks for reading and commenting Francine. I’m so glad you found the advice helpful. I spend a lot of time reading period!
Reading like a Writer was always the first class of a series of six I taught to burgeoning writers when I was a Creative Writing tutor. Of course, back then if people had really taken on board what I was trying to teach them, they wouldn’t have needed me. Now I need me in my refresher course as a writer, I try to learn all I still need to apply to my writing from reading. Thank you for the post.
Sounds like a great course, Jeanne. I’ve always had trouble doing a slow, writerly first read through. My best solution has been to re-read, and repeat. Some of my favorite books I’ve read so many times I have passages memorized. Are you still teaching? I’ve really enjoyed a few online writing courses, but since I’m in Barcelona, I don’t have a lot of writing in English coursework available.
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