How to Read Like a Writer

Reading


The other day, I picked up the book Divergent. I’m not that into fantasy novels, but the movies are entertaining.

It was a boring night, and the book was staring at me from my bookshelf. 

After reading the first four pages, I immediately felt dwarfed.

It was incredible.

I highly doubt anyone would argue that Divergent should be among the literature greats… let alone the best of the century… or decade. But no one would argue about its entertainment value. It gets the job done.

So when I picked up the book, I’m going to just be honest with you, I pre-judged it super harshly. I barely expected anything because, hey, it’s meant for teenage girls. 

I can feel you judging me.

I’ve judged myself enough for the both of us.

I mainly wanted to have some insight for the beginning of my novel. I’m having some difficulties with the first chapter. In that, I don’t have a first chapter. Well, if you want to be technical about it, I have five introductions.

And I can’t pick which I like, or if I even like any of them.

I felt dwarfed in the first 4 pages of Divergent because in a span of two minutes, Veronica Roth established Tris’s personality, family life, place, time, theme, motivation, tension, and explained some of the core beliefs of the factions.

I’m 175 pages into my novel and I barely feel like I even have those elements.

Of course in my second draft, those are big things I will be touching up, but seeing it in such a concise, effective way made me feel dwarfed. It was encouraging to see how potentially seamless a first chapter could be.

I’ve found that reading has answered so many questions I have about writing. But you need to read like a writer if you’re going to get anything out of it.

Here’s what I do when reading a book.

 

1. Read with questions in mind

If you’ve ever been in a relationship, or if you’re male, you’ve probably been accused of “listening but not hearing.” The first time my wife told me that, I was pissed.

I thought they were the same thing, and I defended my point for way too long because I’m super stubborn (an extremely healthy trait in any partner).

From my very limited understanding, hearing in this context means listening with understanding. If my wife tells me, “Get off your computer,” I think through the context of what she’s saying, apply what I know about her, and realize that in this instance she must mean, “I had a hard day at work. I would like some time with you.”

If I only listened to her, I would think she wanted me off the computer, nothing else. That’s when I can get stupid and say things like, “I’m in the middle of something.” 

And that’s proof that I didn’t hear her.

The same is true for reading. Reading is like listening. Active reading is like hearing. 

A few questions to consider while reading are:

  • What’s the purpose of this dialogue? Is this the most effective way to share this information to the reader?
  • How has the character changed in this chapter?
  • How is the tension being managed?
  • What is the narration adding or detracting from this chapter?
  • How is the author handling exposition?

 

2. Don’t read for fun

Our culture is obsessed with entertainment. I don’t have to convince you of that if you’ve been alive for more than ten seconds. It’s obvious.

Heck, look at any living room. The seats are pointed at a TV. They used to be pointing each other.

No, I’m not going to be one of those people preaching, “We’re all dying because we only look at screens all day…” but if I spend the majority of my time consuming entertainment, my brain will be comfortable shutting down and floating in brain juice instead of working.

Which makes creating more difficult.

Reading for entertainment and fun is great. Totally do it. But if that’s all you read for, you’re never going to get anything out of it other than passing time. And if you’re on planet earth to pass time, you might as well not even be here because you’re not contributing anything.

Go out of your way to read books you usually wouldn’t read. Only read romance books? Pick up a political thriller. You’ll learn a lot.

If you only ingest content that’s preaching to the choir, you’ll never be challenged.

And if you don’t care about being challenged, then please never come back to my blog again, because that’s childish.

And I hate you.

 

3. Read to critique

Critiquing and being critical are different things.

The darkest place on earth is in the comment section of Youtube.

It’s filled with emotional vomit, defensive outbursts, and violent threats. That is not critique. But it’s easy to think that it is a critique because it’s being critical of something.

If you read Divergent and say, “WORST BOOK EVER! TWILIGHT HAD A BETTER LOVE STORY!!!!” you’re not critiquing the story, you’re being an emo little troll.

Take emotion out of it. I don’t care if you like it or hate it. Your feelings have nothing to do with it. Dissect the writing, syntax, and structure. Analyze what worked and what didn’t.

Then you can apply your findings to your own work.

See? It’s fun when you get something out of the deal, isn’t it?


 

Last night I watched the romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan. It was entertaining, but I kept pausing the movie to see the timestamp. There was virtually no tension until the last 25 minutes of the movie, and even then it was weak.

I kept thinking, “The tension is going to hike up any second now,” but it never really did.

There were things that worked about the movie and things that didn’t. Even though I was watching it to relax, I was still critiquing it because it can help me.

And I’d encourage you to do the same.

Question(s) of the day: Do you prefer to read to be entertained or to grow? What’s a story you read/watched that challenged the way you write?

10 Comments

  1. You always come up with ways to make writers think. I love that about this particular blog. Keep up the great work. I am going to start reading with a more opened mind because of this post.

  2. So good, Ben! I love how you write- thought- provoking, challenging, practical, and entertaining! Keep up the great work.

  3. I mostly read for entertainment. But until this post, I didn’t think that “critiquing” applied to the books I read. I subconsciously critique movies I watch, because it’s what I studied. But now, I will challenge myself more when I read. Thanks for the post!! Keep it up!

    • The two (books and movies) are much closer than most people realize. It’s still dealing with story, just in a different medium. As long as you are actively engaging (critiquing, analyzing, taking mental notes) with whatever media you’re watching, that will help you improve just like reading a book.

      Best of luck!

  4. I definitely critique-read. The worse the writing, the easier this is to do. If I find myself simply enjoying a book without actively critiquing it, I go back to study how the author pulled me into the storyworld so effectively (sometimes after I’m finished the book so I can have my cake and eat it too). 

    • Hey Aliza, that’s a great habit! I don’t think I’ve ever gone back and read a book completely over just to study it – I try my best to multitask. I think I would get bored if I read the same book immediately after! Ha, but it’s probably quite effective.

  5. I read at time to be entertained, and at other times to learn craft. When entertained by a good book, I usually go back over it to study craft.

    I learn different things from different writers. Raymond Chandler for tight description. Rosamunde Pilcher for simplicity in action. Jack Kerouac for rhythm in language. And so on.

    • That’s an interesting approach! I tend to read novels for entertainment as well (being my primary motivation), but try to multitask while being entertained.

What do you think?

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