reading like a writer–part 2: taking it to a new level

Like many of you, I feel that for some time now I’ve been reading like a writer. In other words, when I’m reading, I’m also noticing: tense shifts, point of view, use of time, distance between the narrator and the characters, the movement in and out of scenes…

In 1999 I was so amazed by Michael Cunningham‘s The Hours–its structure, its use of repetition–that I reread it in order see what he had done. I circled. I underlined. I used Excel and made a chart. I cited page numbers.

Recently at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, another student suggested I listen to the CD of a lecture given by Douglas Glover last summer on “How to Read Like a Writer.” In that lecture he said that to read like a writer, we should learn how to take a story apart. I thought, right, I know that.

But it wasn’t until a few days after that, when I actually took apart a couple of the Alice Munro stories in her new collection, Too Much Happiness, that I finally GOT how to read like a writer–or how to take reading like a writer to a new level–and how that could help me make choices when I was writing.

So the first time I read, I read for pleasure. I underline passages I like, and I notice what’s working and what’s not. Then the second time I read, I read to answer questions.

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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6 thoughts on “reading like a writer–part 2: taking it to a new level

  1. Looking forward to seeing what kind of questions you ask. I’ve started looking at how writers make characters seem so realistic, and how they describe physical traits, emotion, etc… in original ways. If anything jars me (ie pulls me out of the story) I also look like that, although it doesn’t happen too often.

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    • It’s amazing what we can learn from looking closely at the stories we like. I also think it’s easiest to concentrate on one aspect at a time–like what you’re doing with characters.

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  2. It’s really wonderful that you are allowing us to walk through this w/ you, Cynthia! Very enlightening to see how the dynamic unfolds in the context of reading and writing. All very familiar and true to my experience in the visual arts as well.

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  3. Even though this post was short, it was very thought-provoking… Was it Nabokov who said there’s no such thing as reading, only rereading?

    I think you’d be right if you were suggesting that to really understand a piece of work (to read like a writer) one has to read the piece twice. My problem is I seem to have too little time and too many books to read! I’ll generally try and grasp what the writer is trying to do the first time round and only re-read parts if I really enjoyed it or if the writer seems to have done something technically amazing.

    Probably, your approach is better. Your two posts so far made me wonder: What is James Salter looking for if he hasn’t read a story for enjoyment first? Perhaps “fulfilment” is a better word than “enjoyment”? What I mean is: Surely, you have to know whether you liked a story or not first — before you pull it apart — else you’ll have an awareness of technique and craft but perhaps not a sense of what gives you pleasure or perspective, as a reader.

    Anyway, just some thoughts. Looking forward to the next post 🙂

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    • Thanks, Guy. I’ve realized, of course, that there’s not enough time to take every story I read apart. I will have to choose carefully, always reading for pleasure first : )

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