Chances are good that if you love to read, you’ve also thought about writing. Maybe you already do, maybe you’ve taken a class or two, or maybe you’re still working up the courage to put your own ideas on paper. Wherever you are in your craft, your love of reading is helping you. One of the best things a writer can do to improve—aside from writing, of course—is to read widely and often.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Novelist and teacher Francine Prose writes in her craft book Reading Like a Writer, “Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?”
Prose says this method of learning by reading works through a kind of osmosis. When a writer reads the work of a great author, she internalizes the author’s rhythm, lexicon, and style. Later, that author’s voice might influence the writer’s work, but the process is sort of mysterious. There is a way to read more closely, however, taught by Prose and many other creative writing instructors. In reading this way, you can analyze books at the craft level, figuring out how authors work their magic. Consider taking these four steps to start reading like a writer.
- Read the book at least twice. The first time you read a novel, you’re reacting to it. You’re surprised by the characters’ actions; you feel emotional when the plot takes a dark turn or reaches an unexpected happy ending. The first read is about suspending disbelief and allowing yourself to experience the world of the story. The second read is for doing the detective work to understand how the author created that believable world.
- Find the magic words. A great author describes the world with fresh language. In The Age of Innocence, when Newland Archer is struck by Ellen Olenska’s beauty, Edith Wharton does not simply write that Ellen has lovely eyes. Instead, she writes, “It frightened him to think what must have gone into the making of her eyes.” Look for the author’s uncommon sentences, the ones that stir you.
- Examine the dialogue. Take a closer look at how characters speak to each other. What makes the dialogue sound natural? How often are people actually saying what they mean? How does the author let you know what they really mean? It’s true: you could take an entire class on dialogue. Pay attention to how the author constructs conversations—it’s tricker than you’d think.
- Analyze the characters. You might like the protagonist and declare him “relatable,” or you might hate everything about him. It doesn’t matter—the more interesting question to explore is why. What does the character do throughout the book to show you who he is? What does he say about himself? How do other characters speak about him? Try to figure out how the author uses action, dialogue, and narration to bring the character to life.
If you’re serious about reading like a writer, there are several more ways to analyze your favorite books. I recommend picking up a copy of Reading Like a Writer to learn how the best authors tell compelling, original stories.
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