reading like a writer–part 1

Here’s another one of those odd coincidences: It was January of last year that I did a post on James Salter who wrote one of my favorite novels, Light Years, and who in July of 2004 at the Tin House Writers Workshop told the audience: “I don’t read for pleasure anymore. I read because I want to see how they did it.”

When I heard him say that and again when I wrote the post, I thought how sad.

Although I still think the idea of not reading for pleasure is sad, now I understand.

What they are doing and how they are doing it are two questions at the heart of how to read like a writer.

Writing this blog has made me a better writer because I have learned that just writing, “I like this sentence,” doesn’t tell my reader very much. What is it about the sentence that I like–its use of detail, its word choices, its rhythm? Still, my starting point is generally a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph that I underlined while I was reading.

I knew I was supposed to look at the books I liked to see how those writers were doing what they were doing so I could learn to do it too. I even developed a collection of books–fiction, not craft–that I refer to when I’m writing. I thought I was reading like a writer.

And I was, but I was just beginning to overturn the stones…

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart

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31 thoughts on “reading like a writer–part 1

  1. Most of my books are heavily underlined and bookmarked, but I’ve never stopped reading for pleasure. I cannot wait to see where you’re going with this as you “overturn the stones.”


  2. I agree, writing a blog forces me to think through my process more and to work on improving my craft.

    I love your idea for this series, and I, too, can’t wait to see what you uncover.


  3. I like your premise for this series. Lovely photo too. I read like a writer, and it doesn’t dull the pleasure. If anything it makes me appreciate the book the more, unless it is poorly written. Looking forward to reading more of this series!


  4. Darrelyn, I had one sinking moment recently when I thought I was never going to be able to read for pleasure again and then I went to sleep. When I woke up the next day, I’d kind of forgotten about it and picked up a book to read. And I realized there was NO way I could NOT read for pleasure–at least the first time through.


  5. Writing has made me pay much more attention to everything I read, and has even made me attentive in a different way to some TV shows (like Lost, Glee, and Heroes – the first two for what I like about their writing, the last for what not to do.).

    I notice so much more about the writing itself, character motivation, how plots and subplots are woven together, and lots of other things. When I come across something I like, I try to put my finger on why it works. When something doesn’t seem to work, I try to figure out what would have to happen for it to be better.

    Like you guys, though, I still get joy out of what I read/watch – being more attentive makes me enjoy those things even more.


  6. Ahh… to be able to return to reading for pleasure again, that is my hopeful goal for 2010. I often regret becoming an editor just a tiny bit because my eyes see everything: what’s not working alongside what is. I forget to enjoy the story and that makes me sad. I look forward to where you take us with the rest of the series, Cynthia. Sensing it will spawn a new balance for me too.


  7. I recently had someone ask me if getting an MFA had ruined my pleasure of reading and I said no. I still read to lose myself in that world just like I did when I was ten or twelve. A week later I started reading a mediocre book merely because it was set in Paris and saw many of the problems with it. I realized I had learned a lot in grad school. It gave me more confidence in my own writing. When I’m reading an excellent book I put a star in pencil next to the passage so I don’t lose momentum as I read and then go back after finishing to study those parts.


  8. I think if it’s working it is pleasurable, and vice-versa. I never wrote my query letters for *pleasure*. I mean really, what’s fun about auditioning? Then I stopped writing them all together.

    I started writing a blog for pleasure and it was so much fun that I actually discovered my *voice*.

    Now I have returned to those query letters and I see what’s missing…pleasure. I was too caught up in the technique, reading every How To I could– even received positive critiques, but they still weren’t *working*.

    I’ll let you know if they do this time 🙂


  9. Does reading like a writer translate to writing like a reader? That sounds fun. What isn’t fun is watching movies like a screenwriter. Put a timer on movies to see if they follow the ‘rules.’ It doesn’t enhance date night to check a stop watch for act breaks and plot-points, but after the movie it sparks conversations like “why do you take a flashlight to the theater?” I need a new watch.


  10. @David Gillaspie how about using your cell phone – doesn’t it light up? And what are the timings for acts and plot points??

    @owlandsparrow I’m only heard about Glee here in Dublin, but they’ve just started it this year. Must check it out.

    @Cynthia Do you think there are different categories of pleasure? Getting carried away emotionally, vs. sheer technical appreciation. And maybe if one or the other, or both aren’t there, I guess we’re just not stimulated. Bored.

    Does anyone else arm wrestle with the two?


  11. I’m very excited about this series. I’ve found that my ability to read like a writer has improved a great deal over time. The real test is always trying to write about the books I read. Actually being aware that I will attempt to encapsulate what made a book work for me — as I’m reading it — helps a great deal. It no longer intrudes on my enjoyment of the reading experience; it actually enhances it.


  12. I have to agree with Lisa — I find reviewing a book, or attempting to “encapsulate” it (which is probably a better phrase), or even just thinking that I might once I’ve finished, actually adds to my enjoyment of the book. I feel more alert to changes in tone and rhythm but also acutely sensitive to the plot. In good books, these things feed into each other anyway. I also agree with Lisa in another way: I too am looking forward to seeing the rest of this series!


  13. Sarah, your comment makes me think of Wildlives, the best book I read last year. As I was reading, I just kept thinking, How is she doing this? It did make me appreciate the book more.


  14. OwlandSparrow, thanks for sharing your experience of reading as a writer. I’m curious about “the writing aspect” of the TV shows you mentioned–actually more in the what-not-to-dos that you’ve taken from Heroes if you have time to share. Nice to see you here again!


  15. It’s a very good post and I can understand the author’s position on wanting to find out about the ‘how’, but still, reading for pleasure is reading for pleasure and there’s no getting away from it.

    It’s a pity that you arrive at my blog now because between September and December 2009 I uploaded every Tuesday a part of an essay written by the British best-selling author Zadie Smith called ‘What Makes a Good Writer?’. I managed to get copyright permission from The Guardian newspaper where it was first published in 2007 and a Cuban friend in Miami provided the illustrations for free to go with the fifteen chapters. It made for very interesting reading and I would strongly advise you to read it. You might disagree with some of her views but at least I found myself nodding vigorously to some of her statements.

    Greetings from London.


  16. Debra, thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I can certainly understand that if you’re reading as an editor all day long it might be difficult to switch gears to read for pleasure. But reading your first sentence makes me want to jump in to help you accomplish your goal!

    When I had the sinking moment I was referring to in response to Darrelyn’s comment, I thought I’m just going to have to start reading books that are unlike the books I want to write. Is there a certain kind of book you don’t edit? Do you like poetry?


  17. Melissa, I love what you wrote: “I still read to lose myself in that world just like I did when I was ten or twelve.” That is the joy of reading.

    And I cannot read without a pen or a pencil either. Congratulations on your MFA!


  18. Kristi, when I think of reading for pleasure, I think of curling up in an armchair and getting lost in the world of the book, not thinking about anything other than the story and the beautiful language.

    I started to write and then deleted that technical appreciation was in a different category altogether. But now that I think about it, again when I was reading Wildlives, what the author Monique Proulx was doing in that book did become a part of my enjoyment of the book.


  19. I agree. I think the more advanced we are the more of a role ‘technical novelty’ plays in our enjoyment, whether we realize it or not.

    I’m just not sure how to analyze that, to break it down so I can use it in my writing. Therefore am looking forward to your helping us with that in this series!


  20. Lisa, I agree. I find I’m noticing more as I read these days too. That’s another thing the blog has done for me–knowing I want to comment on a certain aspect of a work definitely helps make it more concrete in my own mind. I often discover things I would not have known were there if I hadn’t been writing about it.

    Guy, nice to see you here. I love Lisa’s word “encapsulate” too. I think it’s actually forming the words in our heads to express a thought or a feeling that brings that point to the forefront and then makes it possible for us to see how other features are working with it or against it. Nice point that in good books it’s all working together.


  21. Hi Tricia-I read that book in 2006. I enjoyed reading it, but for some reason, which I can no longer remember, I gave it away instead of keeping it on my shelf. It just didn’t seem to be one I would refer to again. I’d love to know how you like it and if it’s helpful to you.


  22. Greetings from Columbus, Georgia! Nice to see you here, A Cuban in London, and I appreciate your letting me know about the Zadie Smith “What Makes a Good Writer” series reprinted on your blog. I’m off to read the first installment now.


  23. well, reading like a writer or not…. if I am reading, and it takes me to my “happy place” that’s real pleasure!. An observation is that, in-case you are reviewing a book even if it is for your friends, the details just don’t stop flowing in, (something you would have missed otherwise) more often than not it makes the book so much more worth! I read a few books and missed out on a lot the first time…. but ever since I started noting down details of each book just as a pass time, I have become a better reader!


  24. Sure! As far as the TV shows go, I love Lost and admire the way they’ve paced their (very complicated) story; the way they manage to make you care about the individual characters of a huge ensemble cast; the way they drop extremely subtle clues about what’s going on; the way they make even their most horrible villains relatable and their heroes, at times, despicable; and more. 🙂

    With Glee, I actually wrote a post about some things I like, several months ago. Here’s a link:

    As for Heroes, well…I’d say their biggest problems are lack of overall vision for where they want to go, and lack of follow-through with what they start. They tend to drop whole characters and plot lines without ever re-visiting them; I think, perhaps, they’ve written themselves into a few holes given the nature of the show (between such powerful super-powers and the ability to time travel, there’s not much suspense, or much at stake – why care, if they can just go back in time to change it?).

    Wow. Maybe I should do my own series, haha. Sorry to write an entire novel in your comment section!!

    By the way – I have a little surprise for you in my latest post. 🙂 Thanks again for this awesome series!


  25. Owl and Sparrow, I do think you could write your own series! Thanks for the critiques–very interesting. I look forward to your post on Glee, as well as your latest post.


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