Reading Like A Writer

Published October 21, 2013 by M E McMahon

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I once read, I can’t remember where (although I want to say it was Stephen King) that writers should read a book twice.  The first time as a reader…the second time as a writer.

I have found that advice invaluable (whoever said it) and I use that technique with everything I read.  I will read a book and see if I like it.  If I do, I then reread it and find out what the writer did to lure me into their world so effectively.  Most of the time, I’ve enjoyed a book or story because of the characters…I love a good hero or a despicable villain.  The plot is important, of course, but if you don’t have great characters with lots of depth and layers, I find it hard to get into the story.

So, if the writer got my attention, I reread it to find out how they did it!  I have learned a lot from seeing how they develop the back-stories for their characters, and how they show their character’s strength and weaknesses…and most important…when they reveal them.  I also pay more attention to the rhythm of the piece…how do they keep the plot from dragging and losing my interest.

If I don’t like the book or the story, I still go back and reread it anyway.  Why? Because, I look for how the writer wandered off and went astray.  If their characters were shallow, dull or lacked the ability to make me love or hate them, I sit down and think about what I would do to fix the problems.

Sometimes, I go as far as to redevelop them on paper.  If the plot seemed to drag on, was predictable and boring or totally unbelievable, I again go back and briefly write down some things that I would have done to fix the problem.

Whether I loved the book or yawned through the whole thing, I use the writers successes and failures and learn..learn..learn from them.

So if you find a book that you love…go back and find out why!  If you don’t think the writer captured the reader’s attention, look for the reasons and think about what you would have done differently!  It’s a great exercise in writing.

But, one thing you must do if you ever hope to be successful in your writing is to read…read…read.  And, if you find yourself saying, “I could do better than that” then sit down and prove it.  I’m not recommending you rewrite the book or story (that’s plagiarism and most definitely frowned upon) but I am encouraging you to learn from other writers…both the good and the not so good.

Don’t just read the bestsellers.  Read some of the less successful books or stories and think about how the writer might have done this or added that to make it a better work. You’ll find it’s a great writing exercise and you’ll be able to develop your own plots or characters without falling into the same pitfalls as the unsuccessful writers.

So, when you pick up that  book, read it like a reader to see if it works for you.  Then, read it like a writer to find out why it does…or doesn’t!  But, whatever you do…READ!

Yours In Writing,

M E

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10 comments on “Reading Like A Writer

  • I just read a novel for the second time for my monthly book club. It had been a couple years since the first read, but I could still remember the high points of the plot and general sketches of the characters. But on this second read through I paid considerable attention to how the author wrote it, and what about the story made it one of my favorites. If I was a faster reader, I’d do this more often.

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    • So, you learned from the reread. Even if it’s to find out why you liked it…it’s worth the read. You are probably better off than I am (I’m a fast reader…sometimes I miss stuff) for reading slow. You catch the detail!

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  • Oh my..I’ve been doing this since always…only I just reread because i like to deepen what the writer created…a single read for a book I’ve liked is never enough. Now, I’ll think about reading it like a writer would.

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  • I rarely just read story. As I go, I’m thinking about how the author presented characters and pay special attention in how they describe things in fresh ways. This helps me weed out cliches in my own writing. I also look for the ebb and flow of the story. How they paced and unfolded the plot.. I also ask myself why I liked or disliked a character. I do this because I read slowly and must make the most of my time.

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  • This is very sound advice. I would add that if you write a poem or short story, especially one that is being sent to a competition, it’s important to read it and to hear how the words sound before finalising. You would be surprised how choppy or unfinished pieces can sound when read. During my second read-through of a novel however, I highlight the phrases or scenes that resonated most with me and note why. This helps when I am writing my own pieces especially when it comes to use of language. Thanks for sharing!

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  • Great article M.E.! I have done this only a few times in the past, but the way you write it, explaining the process to ‘read as a writer’ makes a lot of sense, a great learning experience. Thanks! 🙂

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