One thing I always tell my students is that they have to learn to read the way a writer must if he or she is going to develop a deeper understanding of craft, but what does that really mean? How does a writer read?
I’ll speak only for myself. Years ago, I started reading with an eye for how a writer made a particular piece of writing. What artistic choices did she or he make to create particular effects? I’ll restrict myself to prose, but I suspect the poets among you might be able to apply what I have to say to poetry. Writers should read not only to identify and eventually internalize specific artistic choices, but also to further define their own aesthetics.
It’s important to gauge our responses to the openings of pieces by thinking about the effects they have on us. Openings can come from different aesthetics and have different objectives, but the one thing they simply must have in common is they have to be interesting. We should think about the effects that different kinds of openings have and how the writer creates those effects. A good writer creates his or her ideal audience with the opening and also teaches that audience how to read.
The final moves of a piece are the ones that create the most resonance. Again, we should be able to articulate what the end of a particular piece makes us feel and to think about how the writer created that feeling inside us. What tricks of language, plot, thought, image, etc. did the writer use to give us a specific experience?
And Everything in the Middle
A piece of fiction or nonfiction often moves covertly to an ending that resonates with something we didn’t anticipate. In fact, much of what a writer does involves raising certain expectations in the reader and then reversing them. I’m not only talking about misdirection of plot events here. I’m also talking about some quality of character or situation that’s present from the beginning and that rises to the surface at the end. It’s the pressures of plot—or sometimes in nonfiction it’s the pressure of language, image, or thought rubbing together—that cause this latent energy to rise and to cause something to resonate within the reader once it does. Someone who is reading the way a writer reads will sweep back through the piece after feeling the impact of the ending and find everything in the middle that makes that ending possible.
Line by Line
Writers like moving words about on the page, paying attention to how syntax and structure create certain musical sounds. When we read as writers we should highlight the sentences that make us laugh, make us weep, make us uncomfortable, make us feel at ease, and then think about how the writer created each of those effects merely through the arrangement of words in sentences. We should also think about how those sentences work together to create a particular mood or atmosphere.
And What We Don’t Like
We shouldn’t be afraid to take note of passages that don’t please us. Likewise, we should always be aware of pieces that are made up of satisfying parts but that don’t add up to a satisfying whole. Pay attention to the sour notes. Think about how a writer got off the track. Think about what he or she might have done differently to create a more satisfying piece. Think of other artistic choices that might be more in service of what the piece intends. Start thinking the way writers do when writing, considering this move and then this move, etc. as they go through a trial and error process of determining the choices that will best allow the piece to resonate.
When we get in the habit of identifying choices and effects, we start to internalize moves that we can put to work in our own writing. There’s so much more to say on this topic, but for now, it’s a start. I hope you’ll find this helpful.