Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Reading Like a Writer

Those of you who visit this blog regularly know that I’m a reader. We’re all readers at Writers Who Kill. We’re readers who became writers, but we’ve never stopped being readers. This might seem an obvious fact to you—they’re writers, so of course, they’re readers—but I’ve encountered a number of creative writing students lately who desperately want to be writers but refuse to be readers. And many of my friends who teach also come across these folk.

What I try to explain to them is that reading makes a writer. Especially rereading. Reading the books we love most over and over, savoring them, poring over our favorite passages—all these indulgences lead us to become better writers by osmosis. We are doing unconsciously what the best writers do deliberately. Reading like writers.

I tell students that reading like a writer is the best education you can get for successfully writing, even better than an MFA from a prestigious (and expensive) program. As writers we know we should never take another writer’s words, but we can plunder their techniques. Take the writers who do transitions best (if that’s your current weakness), and analyze how they manage their transitions. Take their dialogue apart if they’re wonderful at it and you’re not. What exactly do they do that makes their dialogue zing? Go and do the same with your own dialogue in your own words. Steal their techniques of craft to use with your own ideas, characters, and words.
For us avid readers, we’ve been doing this without realizing it for years. Every time we reread a favorite, our minds are absorbing the approaches that author took to the problems that novel set for her or him. When we return to a book we love and have read before, we are less concerned with getting to the next page and learning what will happen next. Instead, we read more slowly and discern unconsciously the skill of this description or that action scene or this character depiction. Real learning, especially as a writer, is noticing, paying deep attention to something in order to know it so well that you own it in your mind and can recreate it.


Read, read, read, read, and write, write, write, I tell my students. Then I ask if they notice that I used more “reads” than “writes.” I explain that there are always needs to be a little disparity in favor of reading as a writer. I’m fortunate enough to know many fine writers and even some the world has named “great.” All of them are readers still, constantly engaged in enlarging their experience of the world through reading and enlarging their inventory of craft through reading like a writer.

Do you find reading is important to your writing? Who are the writers you turn to for new techniques?


Susie said...

I agree! Reading--and rereading (as you point out)--are essential to developing the writer's craft. I also think its a good idea to read broadly.

E. B. Davis said...

I'm amazed when I ask if a writer has read this or that, and he tells me he doesn't have time to read. What? Reading to me is fundamental in the process of writing. Besides, I couldn't go to sleep if I didn't have a book in my hand.

I've always been a reader, but I have to admit that I haven't always read like a writer. Now, I have to slow myself down when reading. I want to know what happens next, but as a writer, I also want to figure out how effective the writer has been.

When I'm revising, some of questions that I ask myself: Is my language effective? Could I have written this scene more effectively using a different approach?

As a beginning writer, I couldn't read while writing. Now, I must read while I'm writing. Reading gives me ideas for my own work and enables me to take much needed breaks that refresh my work. I've found myself re-reading Poe for suspense and horror. Robert Parker for dialogue. But whatever I'm currently reading gives me ideas.

Jim Jackson said...


I have to admit that I have picked up and put down Francine Prose's book with the same name as your post's title: Reading Like a Writer.

I read mostly for pleasure -- fiction for escape into another world, which may also illuminate this one. Non-fiction to learn something that may or may not be useful, but at least is interesting.

Perhaps that reading affects my writing, but I suspect not by much. I have sixty years of reading in the bank and a few more books only marginally add to the mix.

As a writing exercise I will read a book the way Prose suggests: word by word. But to me that is not reading, it is studying. In that exercise, I pay attention to the author's word choices, sentence structure, paragraphing, pacing, etc.

It is hard work and time consuming. Its pleasure is in the learning -- turning fiction into a non-fiction study guide. And, if the writer is really good, they continue to suck me into their story and I find myself reading instead of studying. Then I have to go back and figure out how they did that.

I guess I'd flunk your class.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

Yes, I absolutely think reading is important to our writing, and like you said, we're absorbing techniques even when we're not thinking about it. I read mostly for pleasure and don't take the time to analyze much what I'm reading unless the book isn't working for me. Then I tend to think about why the writer is falling short. It's diffeent, of course, when I'm rereading a favorite author. Then I slow down to notice the writer's skills that make him/her a favorite writer.

I once heard Janet Evanovich doesn't read because she's afraid it may alter or voice or something like that. That may be why I got bored with her books after reading three or four of them.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Reading broadly, yes! Susie, you're so right. Another thing I tell students is not to read in one narrow niche, even if it's literary--which is just another genre, as far as I'm concerned. You may find a technique you can use for your work in mystery in a fantasy novel. I know a lot of novelists, including commercial novelists, who start their writing day reading poetry. It sharpens your use of language. Etc. Etc.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Oh, Elaine, yes! "I don't have time to read." I answered that question to one workshop of students by telling them that, long ago, I'd given up TV to make time to read and write. You'd have thought I suggested they cut off a limb to become a better writer. I mentioned another prolific writer who said he didn't drink and that gave him more time to read and write. I said you don't have to do these things, but they're examples of ways others have made more time for their writing and the reading needed to feed it.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Jim, never! I don't know that you need to read the way Francine Prose suggests necessarily. I think it can be a useful exercise, but I recommend to students that they focus on one aspect of writing at a time.

What's key in my case is that it be rereading. If you've already read the book as a reader, it becomes a little easier to detach from the narrative thread so you can see how this author has woven in all his exposition so cleverly or how she handles flashback so smoothly.

As far as Prose's method, I suspect it's what many of us do unconsciously as we reread and savor particular much-loved books.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Gloria, that's a reason lots of student give. "I don't want to be influenced." My pal, Allison Joseph, and I were talking about this once, and she said, "I tell them. O, you do want to be influenced. You need to be influenced. Believe me."

That's like a painter who refuses to see other paintings that have been done through the ages because he wants to keep his vision pure.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Forgot to explain that Allison Joseph is a renowned poet and literary magazine editor and head of the creative writing program at University of Illinois-Carbondale.

Warren Bull said...

Writers read differently than readers. I cannot count the number of times I've asked new writers who they like to read and them advised them to examine how their chosen author constructs what it is that the new writer admires. Painting students study and purposefully copy old masters. Writers should too.

Kara Cerise said...

For me, reading broadly is vital while developing my craft. Also, I want to learn about a variety of subjects because they give me ideas or new directions to explore in my writing.

Since I write screenplays, I download and study scripts from favorite movies to learn techniques. I want to know what worked and what didn't translate from the written page to the screen.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Warren, you're giving those new writers good advice. And you're absolutely right about painters always studying other painters' techniques.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Kara, it works for screenplays or for theatrical plays or for poetry, as well. You're right to think reading is important to your growth as a writer.

AnnOxford said...

Linda, This is one delicious post for me! Oh, I'm a reader all right; never miss a chance to do so. I carry my Kindle and a book in my bag at all times. I never know when I'll be stuck waiting for something or someone -- time for a book. Unfortunately I have too many unread books (I cannot control my buying and collecting). So I have rarely, at least in recent memory, re-read a book. But thanks to your post, I can definitely see why I should enjoy the best ones again. Thank you!

Linda Rodriguez said...

Ann, that's when you can really study and take in the different strategies an author has used to create the effects her book has managed to create for you.

So great to see you here. Thanks for stopping by!