“If we want to write, it makes sense to read—and to read like a writer. If we wanted to grow roses, we would want to visit rose gardens and try to see them the way that a rose gardener would.” ― Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
As Francine Prose suggests, reading is vital to anyone who wants to write. But, reading simply to read involves focusing on what the writer is trying to say. On the other hand, if we are reading like writers, we focus on how the writer is saying it. We go to our “book gardens” – bookstores, libraries, home bookshelves – and pick the “roses” we want to read. But, per Prose’s analogy, as we begin, we should try to see them the way an author would.
After all, books you read influence your own writing when you “read like a writer.” But, how do we accomplish that sort of reading?
I would first suggest you slow down. Take time to really appreciate what you are reading. When I was a schoolgirl, there was a big emphasis on speed reading. But, I could never read at the rate that would earn an “A.” I was too busy caught up in the beauty of each word to follow my teacher’s instructions of skipping over much of the text in order to meet class goals based on the clock and not the story.
Francine Prose sums up this first step in “reading like a writer” when she says, “With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.”
I know most of us have so many other matters to attend to that reading becomes a rushed task between on-the-job duties and laundry or parent-teacher meetings and yardwork or writing your blog and editing your manuscript. If you slow down, you might read less, but you’ll most likely “get” more out of what you are reading. You’ll see both the story and the craft.
CHECK FOR THE SIX TRAITS OF GOOD WRITING
As writers, we should take the time to pay close attention to the techniques the authors we are reading are using and how those techniques contribute to the meaning of the piece and improve its quality. We may even borrow the techniques we learn for our own writing. Now we are beginning to “read like a writer.”
When we read like this, we are paying attention to how authors write, especially regarding their use of the so-called six traits of good writing: ideas, organization, word choice, voice, sentence fluency, and convention. You might remember these traits from an old English class or, perhaps, you were the educator teaching the concepts. As writers, we can consider how the authors we read approach these traits in their books. For more information, I suggest Read Like a Writer by Steve Peha found online at https://www.ttms.org/PDFs/11%20Read%20Like%20a%20Reader-Writer%20v001%20(Full).pdf.
My novel Sarah Finn uses a child narrator as its main character. Thus, I have been revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee as a great example of the use of this literary device. As I now read that novel to assist in my own writing efforts, I am attempting to focus on how Harper Lee writes, not simply what she is writing. I am trying to read like a writer. So, I will be using examples from her book regarding consideration of good writing traits in what we read.
This trait of good writing involves the main message of the book. The author’s “ideas” reveal their purpose for writing the book.
I find the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird to be the message (or “idea”) of tolerance over prejudice. But, when I approach my reading of this book as a writer, I am not only reading the powerful story. I am also looking at how Harper Lee has built this theme. I see how she begins with personal incidents of children’s prejudices and builds to the trial of Tom Robinson as a symbol of racial prejudice in society as a whole.
Organization deals with the author’s structure with regard to the book’s order of ideas. Writers move through their ideas to pull us into the story. To do this skillfully, they incorporate clear and meaningful transitions, sequencing, and pacing among other techniques.
The structure of To Kill a Mockingbird fits into chronological order. It is told in first person point of view of a child – Scout Finch – who is also the main character. My book follows the same structure so studying how Lee organized her novel was very enlightening to me as a writer.
Voice is a trait that relates to both the writer and the reader on a personal level. It displays the author’s passion and personality and, in turn, impacts the reader through their own sense of person and emotion.
To Kill a Mockingbird changes tone from the beginning innocent reminiscences of a child to the later losing of some of that innocence as the slower and darker tone of Tom Robinson’s trial exposes Scout to the evil that exists in her world. I saw in “the voice” of the novel – Scout’s voice – similarities in the story I was writing and how I wanted my own child narrator to be changed by events in the world she occupies.
- Word Choice
Authors select words to express the ideas they want their novels to convey. These choices can provide depth to a story through the inclusion of similes, metaphors, and other matters the “show” the reader what is taking place and not merely “telling” them.
The figurative language in To Kill a Mockingbird certainly inspires me to be more conscious of how I “show,” not simply “tell,” the story presented in my novel Sarah Finn. Harper Lee employs many interesting word choice devices such as hyperbole (“The world’s ending Atticus.”) and its very title is a metaphor as it relates to the “sin,” as Atticus states, of killing something (or someone) innocent like a mockingbird.
- Sentence Fluency
There is something magical when sentences hold a rhythm that flows throughout a novel. Sentences will vary in length and construction. The sound of their words will resonate when spoken.
I chose a two paragraph passage from To Kill a Mockingbird as an example of this good writing trait. The first paragraph states:
“I wish Bob Ewell wouldn’t chew tobacco,” was all Atticus said about it.
Then Harper Lee writes a second paragraph filled with emotion-filled, almost rambling sentences in which Scout describes what happened to lead Atticus to this conclusion.
Breaking up the rhythm and flow of her language for a better “sounding” read wasn’t the only result of this example of sentence fluency. The way those sentences flow told a lot about the characters themselves – Atticus calm and thoughtful with Scout emotional and impressionable.
The final trait of good writing to be considered involves the use of conventions such as punctuation, grammar, and spelling.
Sometimes authors purposely stray from the use of acceptable grammatical choices. For example, Harper Lee uses the convention of language through what some refer to as southern diction. An example comes from Scout’s brother Jem. “If you think I’m gonna put my face down to a snake you’ve got another think comin’.” In my own writing, I stay clear of the use of diction since it can often drift into stereotyping. However, I do use “bad grammar” in the dialogue of a character if I want to show that person’s lack of education.
READING WITH PURPOSE/PURPOSES
Books hold so much within their pages — emotion, inspiration, adventure, knowledge. Their stories are captivating, and reading for the purpose of engulfing oneself into those stories is paramount to most readers.
But, I suggest that reading can take on a second purpose, especially for authors. Read those same captivating stories like a writer. Slow down and take in every word. Then consider how the author incorporates the traits of good writing into their work – ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions. That effort to “read like a writer” can both improve and inspire your work.
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