This is the last article in the Reading like a Writer series. Instead of posting each one individually, I’m sending you to the “category” page. Have fun surfing them!
This last bit is probably the hardest to really do, but understanding a writer’s motives for the choices he’s made can really help a writer-reader understand why certain elements were used they way they were. By being able to think like the author himself, or at least read his work as closely as he did, you can better understand what he was trying to do, and whether or not he succeeded.
Obviously, this is insanely useful for you to be able to look at your own work critically, as well as help you give your writing friends a more valid critique.
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 read over two hundred pages in a single night. 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 really focusing on understanding the time and effort put into a book is a valuable way to better consider the elements we’ve discussed in the previous posts. When we rush, we often forget to consider a character, or we don’t notice when a plotline 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.
Slowing down lets us 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. I touched on this in the article about plotline. 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.
There we have it. Hopefully this series has been at least a little bit educational, and not all that boring, for you guys. Let me know how your writer-reading goes!
Admittedly, though, even if we ARE writers, we don’t always want to read like one. Sometimes, it’s nice to just relax with a book and enjoy the ride. I say, go for it. 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.