Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Most Important Questions When Reading Like a Writer

One of the best ways to learn about writing is read like a writer. That is, read for craft, take the writing apart, and be aware of the choices the writer made and their effect on readers.
Reading like a writer is not simply reading... Image "Reading & Writing" (CC BY 2.0) by M.Markus.

This is often a difficult change from reading for pleasure and responding with emotion. It is a more active (versus reactive) form of reading, and it requires asking questions of the words on the page. Here, I have provided a quick guide on how to form those questions. This information is extracted and condensed from The Write Practice because I can't be trusted to know how to read like a writer on my own.

Ask Three Big Questions 

There are three big questions to ask when you read like a writer: what, why, and how.

What Was Powerful?

What kind of passage is it? Was it description that got your heart racing? Was it the dialogue, or the way the characters were developed? Was it the explanation of a principle you never quite grasped before, or facts you never knew?

Why Was it Powerful?

Why does this passage matter? Why was this one different from everything else? Why did it stand out? 

The answers can be along the lines of:

  • It revealed something about the character’s past that changes my entire perspective of her choices.
  • It emphasized what the author was trying to say, highlighting the importance of the solution offered or the awfulness of the problem outlined.
  • I knew this character lived on a mountain in Tibet, but not until this section did I think what that would mean for her view every morning of clouds and no ground—so different from mine (assuming you don’t live on a mountain in Tibet) that it actually explains her assumptions.
How Did it Achieve That Power?

Every writer has a set of tools, but most of them can be summarized fairly neatly. There’s “show, don’t tell” and “less is more.” There are basic grammatical skills (which are learned, not inherent) such as punctuation and consistent verb tense. There’s good vocabulary.

But while every sculptor uses the same hammer and chisel, the end result never looks the same. Your goal is to figure out how this author did it.

  • Was it the word-choice? Sometimes the choice of unusual words, or simple words, or specific words can make the difference.
  • Was it the rhythm? There is a rhythm to good prose writing. Read a beautiful passage out loud if you don’t believe me. If you were to swap words with synonyms of different syllable count, the rhythm would totally change.
  • Was it the viewpoint? Did this passage offer a perspective you hadn’t seen before?
Sometimes it’s what the author doesn’t say that makes it work. Things left unsaid for the reader to apply can be incredibly powerful.

I'd like to also point out that Francine Prose came out with a book last year, called Reading like a Writer. I'm intrigued by this, but haven't gotten to it yet. Clearly, this is a much shorter guide and may just be a stop-gap before you get to reading Prose's book. But let's all get there eventually.

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