Columns > Published on April 17th, 2013

6 Tips on Reading to Train the Writer's Eye

One of the most often repeated lessons for writers is the importance of reading. As Stephen King put it, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." However, reading alone is not enough. If you want to read in a way that trains your writer's eye, active engagement is required. Here are some tips for maximizing your learning during the reading process.

1. Approach with a pen.

Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.
~Albert Einstein

The more you engage with a text, the better you'll learn from it. As such, any time you want to read "seriously" (i.e., not just to unwind) a pen and highlighter should be a part of your reading process. Beyond helping you engage, this approach allows you to quickly return to segments of the piece that impressed or bothered you. Whether you're giving yourself a refresher course on the book, writing an essay, or idly thumbing through the pages, these highlights make for valuable road signs.

I myself prefer to read on Kindle largely because it makes my note-taking process simpler. However, electronic mediums have definite drawbacks; I can't annotate with lines and circles, can't double- or triple-underline something, etc. So while I encourage the technophiles among you to consider the Kindle, there are definitely benefits to using the standard pen-and-highlighter approach.

2. Be critical.

'Classic': a book which people praise and don't read.
~Mark Twain

If you approach a well-reputed piece looking to learn from its (already assumed) superior quality, you're hindering yourself. No writer is flawless. Many writing choices come down to value exchanges; clarity will be sacrificed for lyricism, realism for emotional power, directness for detail. Identifying the value choices that don't work for you—or ways that a text simply falls short—can help you affirm your values and find your voice.

Whether you're reading a time-tested classic or a piece of pop-culture garbage, be honest with yourself about what you like and don't like—and take it to the crucial next step: Examine why it is you don't like it. Identify the specific passages, paragraphs, choices, and plot arcs that grated on you. When you do so, even a piece you hate can be a valuable learning experience.

3. Dissect parts of the story that work for you.

Easy reading is damn hard writing.
~Nathaniel Hawthorne

A book is best read a holistic piece. After that initial reading, however, you can learn a great deal from dissection. For example, if you found that the writer balanced a variety of sub-plots in a way that worked well for you, sketch out a diagram on how much time was devoted to each sub-plot, how those plots were rotated, and any other factors you noted.

Here's one example of a dissection I've done. I was impressed by how Suzanne Collins created a rich sensory experience and gradually introduced setting, characters, and suspense in the first chapter of The Hunger Games. I went through and noted how she used sensory details and the rate at which she shifted between plot action and exposition. (I also noted her abundant cliches—but that's a different dissection.)

This made it easy to see Collins' (conscious or unconscious) strategy: She switches back and forth between action and exposition, and any lengthy exposition is followed by equally lengthy action or dialogue. Each action is paired with a sensory detail, and all five core senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) are brought in by the end of paragraph 19. The suspense is developed gradually, with roughly half of the first 20 paragraphs implying the danger of District 12, the woods, or the world.

4. Talk to someone about the piece.

We read to know that we are not alone.
~C.S. Lewis

One of the benefits of studying literature in a book club or college classroom is that you have the chance to talk about the piece with a group. This gives you insight into different responses/observations and ingrains your experience of the story. Don't have a classroom or book club? Talk to a friend about the piece, find a forum discussing the work, or leave a thorough review online.

I find this strategy to be especially useful if I'm talking to someone who hates a book I liked or liked a book I hated; it's valuable to borrow their eyes to see the story from a different perspective.

5. Do some post-reading research.

The life of the text [...] always develops on the boundary between two consciousnesses, two subjects. [...] This discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium.
~Mikhail Bakhtin

While research into the author can be a fun way to gain insight into a piece, one of the most valuable types of research you can do is into the book's critical reception. I generally look to the Good Reads and Amazon reviews, but there are practically endless resources for getting a sense of how a book was received.

Of course, not all books will be reviewed with equal fairness. Established authors may be getting the majority of their reviews from a specific type of reader, giving you only a narrow window of insight. Don't approach the critical reception of a piece as being an absolute reflection of "how audiences respond," and remember that you don't have to write for the same audience. That said, this sort of research can help you gain some contextual framing for the piece and help build a general sense of how today's "reading audience" responds to different styles and strengths.

6. Read it again.

If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.
~Oscar Wilde

If you liked a book, read it again. This will allow you to see how plot moves were foreshadowed, how early passages helped prepare for latter ones, and what specific tools were used to create the emotions, movements, and structure of the piece. Further, since you will no longer be vulnerable to suspense-based ploys, you can get a clearer vision of the writing's quality at the micro level.

If a book works well for me, I'll read it two or three times. During my first read, I make observations but set aside any major dissection or critical analysis; the goal is a raw reading experience unskewed by overthinking. During the second round, I'll read from the perspective of a writer, critically dissecting almost every part of the work in question.

Being a writer requires being a reader, but a given book can be either a blip or a boon in the development of your craft. These six strategies have helped immensely as I've worked toward becoming a more effective reader and writer. I hope they prove helpful to you in achieving those same objectives.

About the author

Rob is a writer and educator. He is intensely ADD, obsessive about his passions, and enjoys a good gin and tonic. Check out his website for multiple web fiction projects, author interviews, and various resources for writers.

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