Four Tips to Reading Like a Writer!

They always say that writers should read. “They,” of course, referring to the infinitely famous and notoriously vague entity that determines what should and should not be done. Pronouns aside, the advice is solid. Reading enables writers to learn more about their craft by seeing what was successful for others. At the beginning, many writers start off their projects by imitating the styles of successful writers before they develop their own–imitation stemmed from reading the works of authors they admire. Along the way, writers can gain inspiration through reading the works of others in their genre, or gain insight into a new genre that writer is considering branching into.

I feel it’s safe to say that reading and writing go hand in hand. Hell, half of us were inspired to go into writing through our passion for reading. However, I would not say that “simply reading” is always enough. In order for a writer to truly gain anything (other than the enjoyment of a good story) from reading, she must read not like a reader, but like a writer.

1. Consider writing conventions

First and foremost, consider the “basics” of writing (and these basics, naturally, are not-so-basic at the end of the day). These basics are the building blocks of the story: grammar, semantics, organization, structure, and style. While reading a book, consider each of these elements–and any others you can think of, at that: there is no clear-cut rule. Different writers use these elements in different ways. Though some are standard, and a writer who uses atrocious grammar for the sake of “style” may lose a reader anyway, writer-readers should analyze an author’s specific usage of the basic writing conventions. Asking “why” an author used a certain convention in a particular way is a valuable method for readers to investigate the story and the writing itself.

• Grammar
Though grammar is typically one of the conventions writers should be consistent with (a writer who misuses “then” and “than” only loses respect, no matter what the reason for it), there are some weird exceptions. Consider things like this: is the writer using different grammar to denote the different voice in fictional characters? Why might he or she have used a double negative instead of simply an affirmative? What’s the reason?

• Semantics
Word choice is a major factor in writing. Most good writers have chosen the words they have used very consciously, determining the absolute best fit for the situation. Paying close attention to the specific words authors have used, understanding both the connotation and the denotation of these words, and seeing how they fit into the rest of the story, is a great way to consider it.

• Organization
While reading, consider the overall flow of the story. Does it fit together. Did the beginning scene prepare you for the following scene? Does anything feel clunky and incomplete? If it does, identify why it feels clunky and incomplete. Why were the scenes placed in the order they are in? What does their order accomplish as far as moving the story forward?

• Structure
Structure is different than organization. It’s not where the elements are put together–it’s how the elements are put together. Did the author use long or short chapters? Why? Is the dialogue attached to name tags or left alone? How are the sentences laid out? What’s the importance of the sentence structure? Does it convey a mood that matches that of the scene?

• Style
Style can get tricky. One of the greatest teachers I ever had said something brilliant about style: “A piece of work can be grammatically perfect but stylistically ugly.” Style is not above critique, though many writers seem to think it is. An author’s individual deviation from any of the above conventions can be considered a stylistic choice. Some of these choices work wonderfully. Some do not. While reading, identify these stylistic choices. Determine if they “work” for the story or if they do more harm than good. Why do they work? Why don’t they? What could have been done to save the sentence or scene?

2. Dissect the characters
A common trend of recreational readers is to blindly fall in love with characters. These readers latch onto the idea of a single character and ignore (or simply fail to notice) the things that make up that character. This is fine and dandy for the recreational reader. However, for the writer-reader, a character should be much more than a fictional human being with whom you develop bizarre emotional connection to. By all means, writer-readers can still fall in love with characters, but the beauty of it is they can also understand why (other than, of course, Lead Male’s bulging biceps–that goes without saying).

Every character should have a reason for being in the story. As my novel writing professor told me, “every character needs a role in the story, even if his only role is to serve a cup of coffee.” In the real world, we interact with people every day who do not, and will never, play a significant role in our life-story. In a novel, it isn’t so. Characters without motives only take up valuable word-space. While reading, determine the motives of every character. Figure out why that character is in the story. What roles do the characters play? Why is this character assigned this role?

• Depth
Every story has deep characters and shallow characters, more commonly referred to as “round” or “flat” characters. The primary characters in the book should be round–they should have more depth to them. They should change throughout the course of the story. They should have to deal with conflict and resolution. Consider the main characters in the book. Are they visibly changing? Do they have to deal with conflict? At the end of the book, can you see a change in the character compared to the beginning? What about the side characters? Are some of the side characters too rounded while the main characters seem flat and boring? If you cannot relate to a main character, he is likely too flat. Identifying how an author develops a character’s depth is a valuable tool to determining how to develop your own round characters.

• Realism
In order for a reader to connect to a character, the characters must feel realistic. Do the characters in the book feel realistic to you? If so, what makes them realistic? Does their dialogue seem natural and normal? Do they handle conflict in a way that makes sense with their characterization? Do they have understandable relationships and connections to the other characters in the story? Ultimately, at the end of the day, can you think about this character and imagine them in the real world? Characters that you can believe would actually exist are characters people can relate to. If you find yourself struggling with a character you cannot understand, identify why you cannot understand them.

3. Identify the plot

The plot is the driving force behind a novel. Writer-readers should closely consider the elements of a successful plot line. This can help them understand the ways other writers are able to drive their readers through a story without losing their interest or confusing them. A well written plot should be easy to follow and engaging. When reading, try to figure out why a plot line is or is not working. Here are some useful things to consider:

• Plot flow
The plot line should be impelling and pull you through the story. If it doesn’t, there’s a problem. The flow of a plot line has a lot to do with whether or not it can keep a reader’s attention or not. If a plot line jumps around or is erratic (as in, it doesn’t follow the standard “exposition -> rising action -> climax -> falling action -> denouement” structure), or if it doesn’t make realistic, believable, or sensible transitions, not only do readers have a hard time following along, but they have a hard time caring. Think about the plot as you read through a book. Does it throw you into an erratic roller-coaster ride that has too many ups and downs? Is it well-structured? Can you identify the major plot points? Has it sucked you in or are you bored? Why?

• Subplots
Most novels have subplots beneath the primary plot line that are not essential to making the main plot run smoothly but definitely help build a compelling story. These subplots usually involve minor characters and have their own mini plot arcs. You can consider them as you do a primary plot line. Are they smooth? Do they make sense? But more importantly, they should add to the story. If a subplot feels misplaced or completely unnecessary, it probably is. Can you find any subplots? What makes them successful? If they aren’t successful, why don’t they fit in?

• Plot holes
Even published works sometimes have plot holes. Often, these holes are too small or insignificant to matter, but finding them and analyzing them can help writers avoid them in their own work. Did you run across a plot hole? Is it a simple mistake or something that could potentially change the way the work is interpreted? Perhaps the plot hole is intentional. Sometimes writers leave little gaps for their readers to fill in with their imaginations. Does this seem like one of those instances? If so, did it work for you or are you unsatisfied with the lack of information? What could be done to fix it?

4. Get inside the author’s head
It isn’t always easy to do, but understanding the writer’s motives for the choices he made can really help a writer-reader understand why certain elements were used they way they were. This can be a great insight to writers who have recognized the successful writing style of an author. By being able to think like the author himself, or at least read his work as closely as he did, you can better understand why certain techniques used or choices were made.

• Slow down
Throughout my undergraduate career, I was trained to get through a book as quickly as I could in order to be able to contribute to discussion in class the next day. Sometimes I was expected to get through over two hundred pages in a single night (this is, of course, counting all the literature classes I would take at a time). Many other people have been self-taught to read quickly. Sometimes we can’t help it when we’re sucked into a story and finish it in two days. However, for writer-readers, slowing down and taking the time to understand the time and effort put into a book is a valuable way to better consider the elements listed above. When we rush, we often forget to consider a character, or we don’t notice when a plot line makes a jump we don’t understand. By slowing down, we are better able to actually digest what we’re reading instead of swallowing it whole. To get a real taste for the author’s intention, we must take our time to savor the experience.

• Read carefully
Slowing down allows writer-readers to examine every minute detail. Writers are creatures of precision. It is very likely that every sentence you are reading has been very specifically chosen among a slew of other possible sentences. It is not a coincidence that the elements flow together the way they do: the author (at least, if he was a good author) thought all of that through ad nauseam. He likely spent years creating something it will take you no more than a week to read. How can you possibly get inside the writer’s head if you aren’t taking at least some time to actually consider what he was trying to do when he made the choices he made?

• Read it again
Remember, our hypothetical author wrote this book over a matter of years. Probably several years. He reread and rewrote the materials dozens of times to get it as close to perfect as he could (and, ultimately, he never got it “perfect,” and sent it off for publication anyway). Not only will slowing down help you better understand the author’s personal motives, rereading the work will, too. By revisiting a text you are already familiar with, you will be able to make connections more easily, read into the actions of characters with a better understanding of how it’s helping in their eventual development, and catch the subtle tricks the author is using to move you through the story. In fact, many people I’ve talked to have argued that the first time you read a book, read it as recreation. The second time, read it as a writer. That way, when you are considering the book as a writer instead of as a reader, you already know what’s going to happen and it’s easier for you to make the connections between the elements and the writer’s motives.

Reading like a writer isn’t always possible, and as a writer you don’t always want to read like a writer. Sometimes, it’s nice to just relax with a book and enjoy the ride. Ultimately, even with recreational reading, you are still gaining a little bit of insight on the writing itself. Personally, I can’t read a book without putting on my “writing lens” and thinking about it as an author–and for me, that makes it fun. Hopefully, by being able to consider these four things–and by adding other, personal criteria–other writers can help themselves grow by doing something they already loved in the first place.

Happy reading! Happy writing!

(This a guest post by Mary Hunton. Mary has been writing for the greater part of nine years. She excelled at it in high school, writing for everything from her school newspaper to literary magazines, taking part in the creative writing classes, workshops, and competitions. She won first place in her grade in the county-wide creative writing competition two years consecutively, the only two years she competed. She began working on her first novel when she was fifteen. Mary is now a copywriter for a technology company in Reno, Nevada. The first two books she wrote are currently being torn to shreds for a much-needed rewrite, and two more are are waiting for an outline reform.  She has a fifth novel in progress that she is seven chapters into, and a sixth that is in its outlining stage, and a seventh that she is preparing for query.)

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4 Responses to “Four Tips to Reading Like a Writer!”

  1. Rohin says:

    All points agreed. Though I must admit I don’t follow any. The moment I start concentrating on grammar I forget everything else and loose the plot. I try and concentrate on the story and way I want to say it. Rest follows. I feel if the essence is right , rest will take care of itself. Besides we sometimes forget some of the most brilliant work has been edited and proofread a number of times before being published. So ….

  2. Sarah says:

    I am SO guilty of not reading like a writer! Most often, I am an impatient reader – so the last point really hit home. I’ve always been struck by the wealth of detail and understanding I get from a book the second or third time around- slowing down always help me savor the book.

    Love the post – gave me stuff to turn over in my head the next time I read a book!

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