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Reading Like a Writer

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

I majored in English as an undergrad, and now I teach high school English, so I am pretty well-trained in squeezing an obscure meaning out of a text, finding the symbols and the patterns and the metaphors. Sometimes I get so excited about the detective work of literary analysis that I need to be checked by a sarcastic comment from one of my students: “Dude, Ms. Morrison, how do you know that Poe meant all that?” “How do you know that wallpaper is supposed to reflect her growing madness? Maybe it’s just really ugly wallpaper?” “How are you so sure that potted plant is a symbol of the family’s dreams? Have you ever considered that maybe it’s just a potted plant?” I have to admit, they often make a good point.

Reading like a reader is an important skill, and there’s definitely a time and place for it—like, for example, in an English classroom or while reading a movie or restaurant review: you’re not interested in how the writer or filmmaker or chef got there; what you’re interested is the final product.

But when you join an MFA program, you have to become trained in the skill of reading like a writer. Instead of thinking about theory, you need to start thinking about process. You’re not looking at the work as a whole, but at why the author made the choices they made; choices about structure and point of view and pacing and characterization, etc. etc. etc. You’re not coming to a conclusion about whether a story works; what you want to know is why it works—and how you can get it to work for you.

I’ve had a few commenters ask if we are required to take literature courses in my MFA program, and the answer is yes, sort of. But they’re not called lit classes, they are called CRW—Critical Reading and Writing. This is where you learn to read as a writer. For someone who came from an English background, and who teaches English every day, this transition was really difficult for me. I had to be gently forced. But now I get it: writers don’t consciously decide, hey, you know what this story needs? A potted plant that is symbolic of the family’s wilting dreams. The process of storytelling, as we all know, is much more organic. So if you want to be a better writer, why worry about the stuff that only becomes clear after the story is finished?

There’s a clear difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer, and there is a benefit to both methods. Learning the benefit has helped me immensely in my craft. Now when I read as a writer, I’m consciously asking myself, how did she do that? Why describe the neck as weak, instead of slender? Why use first person, when third person also might have worked? Why begin with this kind of telling? What is the pattern of scene to summary, summary to scene? And most importantly, what techniques can I now steal for my own writing?

How does reading like a writer inform your own practice?

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5 Responses to Reading Like a Writer

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  2. L.R. Giles says:

    This is a good post, and I haven’t thought about this sort of thing–reading like a writer–in years. Not consciously. I can remember a time when I used to literally scribble notes in the margin of books (all of which I owned, of course) to help myself understand what the writer did and why it worked. Over time I got away from the notes because I realized I rarely went back to them, but the thought process stuck (kind of like driving…when you first start you’re actively thinking of rules and where to put your hands, but after some practice it’s all reflex) and I began taking mental notes. Now, when I write, and I’m trying to pull something off I can recall a similar situation in an admired book and transfer the technique out of reflex.

  3. Dana says:

    Thanks so much for addressing this. I’m with you on the last paragraph; I find it much more interesting to try to recreate an author’s technique in my own writing than to write some book report about symbolism or "meaning." Ick.

    In fact, I think borrowing technique from a writer is a great way to develop (access?) an analytical OR emotional response to a story.

    There is a book called Rhetorics, Poetics, Cultures by Berlin that argues literary study as we know it (as opposed to the study of rhetorical technique) has only been around in academia for a hundred years or less. Berlin argues that writing book reports was a course of study partly designed to train the new class of middle managers that became necessary due to the industrial revolution. Prior to that, people receiving higher education (elites who would go into business, law, politics, ministry, or education) were trained to speak and to write, but not to write literary theory.

    At the very end of my schooling, for my senior thesis, I ended up doing an ethnography. There is a contingency of anthropologists who have devised a form called art-based research. This to me is a beautiful concept. In this form, one can use the creative process as the analysis portion of one’s research. Beautiful.

  4. Kristan says:

    Reader like a writer is HUGELY helpful to me. I basically have 3 categories of books now: (a) Books that are so good I can only read like a reader (until a calmer second pass, at which point I definitely try to put my writer hat on); (b) Books that are pretty good, but don’t blow me away, so I’m able to read both as a reader and a writer; (c) Books that are kind of (or really) bad and I can’t take them seriously as a reader, so either chuck them, or pick them apart as a writer in order to learn. (I think most movies and TV shows go into these 3 categories for me too.)

    An example of books in category (A) are THE HUNGER GAMES. I’m in complete awe of that series, so it’s a great study for me as a writer.

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