Writing Discussion

Reading like a writer

I once had a high school English teacher who observed that even if her students had stopped reading fiction in high school, the ex-readers would  still do better in her classes than those that did never read for pleasure. Her theory was that we unconsciously pick up grammar rules, and a feel for language through reading that is never lost. I think there’s something to that. Sometimes you understand why one sentence works, and another doesn’t, and are not able to explain why. Sometimes stories sew seeds in your brain that only sprout years later.

But I think that most writers need to make parts of the process conscious. I know I do.

I’ve heard some people will take sample pages from writers they like, and type them up, to get an sense of how the words come together as they’re written. I’ve never tried this, but I think I might in the future. I’m a fast reader. Typing would slow me down and prevent me from skimming.

Sometimes I’ll keep a notebook handy, and jot down turns of phrase I find particularly vivid or appealing. I end up with messy scribbled notes, but I think the act of it is almost as important. Somehow by writing things down, it sticks in my mind better.

The most valuable thing I find is asking ‘why’. Why did I enjoy this part of the story? Why did this work for me? Why did I hate this part? Why is this popular? Then going back to find the answers in a re-read.

Still sometimes, I like to read straight through without pausing. It’s also valuable to feel the flow of a story sometimes and to read like a reader instead of a writer. I’ll bookmark parts I like with bits of torn paper to go back to when I’m done with the book.

Do you have special techniques for getting the most out of your reading?

23 Comments to “Reading like a writer”

  1. I can’t think of any particular techniques I use. I try to read with a critical eye – but I don’t want to forego pure and simple enjoyment either, because that’s integral to reading for me.

    Largely, I’m just trying to understand why I liked what I liked. To do that, I think about a book or story’s approach to these things: characters, plot, worldbuilding, use of language, myths, themes, and tropes.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      It’s really good to just read for enjoyment sometimes. That’s why we do this right? We love stories 🙂 I’ll usually write a mini book review just for myself when I’m done, to capture a few of those bigger things, and so I don’t forget what I liked, either.

  2. “Sometimes stories sew seeds in your brain that only sprout years later.”

    So true! Only about four to five years after high school did I start noticing that the novels we read back then, even the ones I didn’t particularly care for, have somehow influenced my writing today.

    I actually tend to be a pretty sloooowwww reader. >.< Sometimes–lots of times, actually–I'll notice something cool or something I'd never seen about before and it gets me asking questions. Then I go off looking for the answers to them, which interrupts my reading, heh.

    You know this already, but I just finished reading a Cherie Priest novel. I was really taking in her use of description, detail and dialogue as I was reading, thinking about how her technique differs from mine as well as why I think certain sections work or could be made better. I guess I always look at novels like this according to what I might be challenged with at the time. Relaying technical details while being entertaining is something I've been working on recently–how much to reveal, how to reveal it, etc.–and so I was really interested to see how Cherie Priest did this when she talked about submarines, for example.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      Oh yes, another good point. Somewhat related, if I find something that I’m frustrated with in my writing, and see it in what I’m reading, I’ll get very annoyed. LOL

      Sometimes I’ll read in front of the computer so I can Google things to see if they’re real or made up hehe.

  3. If I have any specific reading technique at all, it’s re-reading.

    When I read Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon), that was it for me for six months. I read and re-read and listened on audio and eventually re-read some of his earlier books as well, plus posting extensively on my blog about the whole thing, and on the Pyncon Wiki.

    Part of this was for the pure enjoyment, but part was to really study it, take it apart and put it back together again and understand it as well as I could. It was particularly important because it was Pynchon (my favorite writer, I guess) deciding to write a real mystery novel at the same time I was starting to write mystery stories. But I might have done it anyway.

    I could have read a lot of different books during those months, but I think I learned more this way, and quite possibly had more fun, too.

      1. Well, I do re-read a lot, but that experience was unusual even for me. I re-watch movies a lot, too, particularly when I’m writing a review. That’s the thing that amazes me about real movie critics, that they can see a movie only once and know what they want to say about it.

  4. Oh boy, I can share a lot of tips on that, because I usually wanted to write suspiciously insightful reviews. What I did in the latter stages, more with short stories than with novels is that I underline with a phrase that I did enjoy and have a personal vocabulary notebook to note down new for me words, which does happen. Once I have read the piece I wrote down my feelings and then read it once more to get the moments that excited me and those that didn’t, try to tie them together and explain why for instance something in theory I should have loved didn’t elicit an emotional response. But this is rather unique for me reading, which helped me with my writing.

  5. Thanks for a great post! I really like the idea of typing up a few pages to get a feel for the writing style – I’m gonna try that. I also think doing an exercise in imitation is useful – trying to invent a new chapter in the same style as an author you admire. You can learn do much from that process.

    I also spend a lot of time thinking about why I like or don’t like particular effects in writing. Why something works and how the author achieved that. I’ve actually thought about creating a database of good examples of techniques for writers, especially the ones we’re not ‘supposed’ to do – it’s great to see when someone’s done that kind of thing well. But I think I’d need someone more web-build-savy to help me!

  6. I try to turn off my “editor” brain when reading, but it’s difficult. I have to make a real conscious effort to let things go and just read.

    But I too also keep a little notebook handy when I hear or read even just a cool word or phrase. I love words, and I like how each word has it’s own aesthetic about it.

  7. I wish I had special techniques for getting the most out of reading. Unfortunately my critical acumen refuses to accept boundaries, is constantly on, and eats anything I pay attention to. As a result, I’m never without extractions from a work, regardless of how good or bad it is. I also fairly automatically construct ideal models to test the author’s execution against. It’s all the result of reading so much. Pure familiarity can breed ability where you’re not even looking for it.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      Familiarity can indeed. I think that’s why it’s so important that writers read a great deal. But, I’m ashamed to admit, I haven’t had as much time for it as I’d like lately.

  8. I was a high school English teacher, and I can also attest that my best students (not just in reading/writing) were also readers.

    Reading makes the brain sharper, and that brain power is easily applied to doing math, science, or other subjects.

  9. When I’m reading, I use Post-it flags to mark favorite passages, and sometimes I type them up in an email to myself (particularly if the book doesn’t belong to me). For sure, the act of writing or typing things down helps me to remember them, to really absorb them.

    I think the key to what you’re talking about — the thing that reading does — is exposure. Exposure to ideas, feelings, experiences. Exposure us to the depths of our own minds. And the more that we are exposed to, the more that we can embrace, assimilate, and disseminate.

    We are nothing without awareness.

  10. I just read.

    I guess.


    Haven’t really thought too much about this. Hmm. But I’ve found that when I experience long writing-draughts, and serious writer’s block, usually if I read some good books then somehow I get the oomph to start writing again. It’s weird.

    There’s something about the symbiosis of reading and writing.

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