A Good Book, Ruined: Reading Like a Writer

I have a couple of writer-friends who cannot critique a manuscript to save their lives, nor can they analyze what they are responding to in a work they admire.  Why?  Because they have not yet learned how to read like a writer.  Instead, they tend to plunge right in and get involved in the story, no matter what (even if the prose is uneven and the work doesn’t hang together).  They often describe this experience as being like watching the movie unfold inside their minds.

In order to hone the craft of writing, it’s important to learn to stop enjoying books. Or perhaps I should say, when to stop merely enjoying the reading experience, and start understanding it, and analyzing why you respond to a work the way that you do.  This will help you improve your own work, deliver better critiques for your writing buddies, and appreciate how the authors you admire craft their prose to best effect.

So, how do you ruin your reading experience?  Don’t worry, I’m here to help.  And I find, ultimately, that reading like a writer provides a different, but no less enjoyable experience.  The goal is to bifurcate your reading brain, so that, as you react to the work, you are also aware of the reasons for that reaction–in essence, you are observing yourself reading.  The approach is similar to techniques used in counseling or meditation, when you make note of your behaviors and responses, so that you can modify them later as needed.

A work of fiction exists on several levels: the one we tend to focus on is the macro level (the story, the characters, the plot overall), but the micro level is where the action really happens (the words, sentences, paragraphs and structures that create the on-going movie of the prose).

In order to understand the macro level of a work, one thing that helps me to break the movie is listening to the audio book, especially while I am engaged in some other activity–driving, house-painting, or what-have-you.  The physical activity means you can’t fully invest in the “reading”, and the fact that you are listening tends to blur the focus on individual scenes or moments, and instead give an overview of the work, the rhythm of scenes and sequels, the structure of the plot.

But when you want to understand what’s really going on, you’ll need to dig deeper–and this is what will also make you a great critique partner.  Reader reaction, especially to character, is often based on small word choices that build into the complete image.  If the wrong word or phrasing choices are made, the impression the reader receives could be completely different from what the author intended.  Placing two ideas close to each other in the text leads the reader to link them, regardless of what the author had in mind.  As the reader in this scenario, you need to be able to articulate what you are responding to in the text, as the writer, you need to act as a sleuth and discover the small details that are triggering your reader’s response.

Sometimes, it can come down to a single word.  The word “sneer” for instance is overwhelmingly negative.  If you intend for a character to be sympathetic, use of that single word could undercut the entire effect.

To hone this kind of close reading, I recommend re-typing passages from published works.  Sit with the book open in front of you, and simply type out what you see.  If you are simply reading the words, you may not pay attention to the sentence structure, word order, or accumulation of detail that creates scene and character.  Typing the words forces you to slow down–to freeze-frame the movie–and look at each comma, each word choice, and think about how they work together.  This can be a great way to learn from the authors you wish you could be.  The idea isn’t to copy them into your own prose, the idea is to understand how they do what they do, and think about how you can better use your own small choices as a result.  Learn from the masters–and also from the not-so-masterful.  If a book isn’t working for you, analyzing *why* it doesn’t work can be just as important.  While re-typing passages, I have found which authors are master of metaphor, and which are making lazy verb choices.

When you return to your own manuscript (or to your friend’s), apply the same kind of macro and micro analysis.  What is the overall effect of the prose?  What small choices add up to create that effect?

Thanks, E. C., for ruining reading for me. . .well, as I said, I find this kind of reading to have its own joys, including the thrill of discovery when you can see the mechanics of the magic–you can be inside the secrets of prose.  And if I do find myself sinking through the words, into the movie, then I know I have found a true master.  What techniques do you use to separate writer’s mind and reader’s?

In the meantime, you’re welcome.