Writing Discussion

On the proper digestion of read works

reading
Reading by Madelinetosh (CC)

… or in other words, how do you read?

If you’re a writer, it’s sometimes impossible to turn off the critical brain while you read, and that brings both a certain amount of frustration and a different sort of joy. I’ve wept at beautiful sentences that I couldn’t ever re-recreate. I’ve also gotten angry or annoyed at unreasonable things, like the sin’s I’ve tried to correct in my own writing, staring blatantly at me in other people’s works.

My reading practice has changed over the years. When I sit down to read a new book, I have a piece of scrap paper with me and I tear off a little bit to bookmark the interesting things I find in the text. These torn scraps are placeholders, so that I can go back to bits to study, without breaking the flow of the first reading.

When I’m done the book, I’ll usually write a few thoughts into a journal: my first emotions upon completing the story, what I think the writer did well (irregardless of whether I enjoyed the book), and what things troubled me about the story or techniques employed. Sometimes I also go back to those shredded paper bookmarks and add examples of the things that I noted.

Some books require pages of digestion, and some books only require a few sentences. Mostly I write these things as a record so that when I look back at a book on my shelf I can remember in a glance what I got out of a book or felt about it.

More often than not, it’s difficult to read simply for pleasure anymore. But once in a while its still rewarding to try and switch off the writer brain sometimes.

Do you have a particular reading practice you observe? Do you think about books once you’re done with them?

14 Comments

  1. stephen

    You’ve perfectly described how I feel when I read. I can’t remember anymore what it’s like to read for fun. I’ll start a book, notice the word WAS all over the place, and then wonder why they can break this rule and I can’t. After a few minutes of frustration I put the book away. I stick to classics, they are much less aggravating to read.

  2. I read for enjoyment, and I find I’m mostly able to divorce my reading-for-enjoyment brain from my writing brain during the act of consuming fiction for enjoyment. (Maybe “able to divorce” isn’t the right phrase. More like… that’s the default setting. I have to actively engage writing brain if I want to analyze what I’ve read.)

    That’s not to say I don’t try to think about the things that I’ve read. Usually, at some point after-the-fact, writing brain engages on its own, and I start analyzing and picking nits. The hardest part for me, really, is digging into sentence-level analysis. When it comes to stories, my brain processes character and story structure and plot and theme and all that jazz, but sentence-level style and structure is in one eye and out the other…

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      I think that the sentence level composition really does need to be looked at outside of the reading experience. The best writers, I find, make it so easy to keep reading without noticing it. That’s a good thing!

  3. You know, it’s interesting, because I’m currently reading Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey and … well, that’s not the best book I’ve ever read. At least not yet. Maybe I will like the other parts of her series more. Anyway, so I was really skeptical on the first 50 pages or so, and found infodumps, rushed scenes, telling instead of showing, and it was really-really frustrating. (Especially because I was reading Stardust by Neil Gaiman before Dragonflight, and Stardust is just perfection.) I think my writing brain goes into action when I don’t like a book too much, because then I can concentrate on the little irritating details and mistakes or the really well-written dialogues or descriptions. For example, when I’m reading something from Terry Pratchett, I’m unable to tell what makes a scene work. I can’t tell what’s so good about his books and oh my god, how the hell is he doing that?! 🙂 Although it’s true that when I’m writing and I’m stuck, I tend to open up a book and just look at a scene to try to figure out how to do something. But yeah. Most of the time I suck at reading like a writer.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      You know, I got advice from a published writer that reminded me of what you just said. “Read books by writers who are okay, but not great, if you want to learn. When it comes to the greats, you probably can’t see what they’re doing.” Makes sense now 🙂

      I wouldn’t say you suck, I’d say you must have good taste in books then.

      1. I think this may apply more generally. A friend was a Rolling Stones fanatic (back in the day), but he used to study the Beatles. He said there was no point in studying the Stones. All you could learn was that they’ve got it and you don’t.

        I also remember watching some top dressage riders with my ex (a professional equestrian) and she said she couldn’t see their cues at all.

  4. I was JUST talking to someone the other day about how I have the same issue. Ever since I started writing seriously, it’s become nearly impossible to read only for fun. It really irks me, because I’ve always loved to do that, but I can’t seem to shut off my writer’s brain. I do better with it when I’m drafting rather than editing – or, of course, when I’m taking a break from writing work – but still … frustrating!

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      I know, it is frustrating! It takes effort, sometimes you have to negotiate with the book “SEE HERE, YOU WILL BE FUN!” But they don’t often take well to threats. *sigh*

  5. I don’t read analytically the first time around. The first time through a book is for pleasure (or not, in which case I toss it). As we were talking about on my blog, rereading is where I can start to really think about the nuts and bolts. My copy of Inherent Vice, which I read and reread for five months, is marked up on almost every page.

  6. “I’ve also gotten angry or annoyed at unreasonable things, like the sin’s I’ve tried to correct in my own writing, staring blatantly at me in other people’s works.”

    Oh yeah, totally.

    I used to tear scraps of paper too (haha how funny!) but now I use post-it flags, and it’s more for marking lines or sections that I love, as opposed to analysis. Most of the time, with good quality work (whether it be a book, movie, TV show, whatever), I am able to enjoy it as a “regular consumer” first, and then think it over more critically later.

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