Reading Like a Writer

Recently, my friend S sent me a book as part of a care package. On a Post-it Note stuck on the cover she wrote, “Have you read this? The pacing of the last 10-20 pages is amazing!”

Can you tell S is a writer?

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about Reading Like  Writer. What does that mean? It’s sort of like a woodworker staring at a Thos. Moser chair. Unlike you or me, he doesn’t just stand and drool. Well, he does, but then he wipes away his drool and tries to figure out How They Did That. What tools did they use? What kind of wood? How did they get that effect? How did they stain it? Can I do that, too?

Similarly, if S were reading as a reader, she might have written something different on the Post-it Note: “The last section is a page-turner!” But she was clearly thinking about what made the last 20 pages compelling. Something about the way the author parcels out information, about the way she builds and relieves suspense. (I’m sort of guessing here, b/c I haven’t gotten that far in the book.)

Reading like a writer means not just being swept away by a scene, but going back and trying to figure out why that scene swept you away. Was it the dialogue? The actions of the characters? A vivid description of emotions or setting? How did all those things come together to build tension or suspense or beauty or mystery?

When reading like a writer, look for

  • Character development
  • Plotting and structure
  • Language
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Dialogue
  • Setting and description
  • Scene and pacing

It’s a lot! Usually, there are one or two or three things that a particular book does really well, and that’s what I focus on, rather than trying to follow the ways the book handles every single element of fiction. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have any time to just read a passage a drool.

I’ll be following this post up with some posts where I look at particular elements in books I’ve read recently. Look for a post on structure soon. I’d also love to hear from my readers about how you “read like a writer.”

As an aside, Margaret Atwood has read every Conan the Conqueror book!


4 thoughts on “Reading Like a Writer

  1. carrie

    Maybe this is my problem, I don’t read like a writer. Unless marking particularly poignant lines/passages is like a writer. I suspect that’s more like an English major. 😉

    1. equotah Post author

      I totally used to read like an English major, Carrie! Several writing teachers had to rid me of the habit. I also think the more you write, the more you start to read that way. If I’m working on a story or chapter and reading something at the same time, I tend to see the thing I’m reading through the lens of the problems I’m facing as a writer.

  2. Sarah

    Hey, thanks for the shout-out! I’m glad that novel was new to you and hope you enjoy it.

    I’ve thought a fair amount about that ending, because those last 10-20 pages feel exactly the way I would like the end of my novel to feel (I know what happens/what the final scene is, but I have no idea how I’m going to get there…and of course it may all change, but it’s somehow comforting to have something to feel like I’m aiming towards for now).

    I don’t remember it well enough now to be able to analyze how the author builds and relieves suspense at a micro level. But your post made me chew on the “why”s some more, and one thing I realized is that at the beginning of the section I’m talking about, there is a plot twist that was genuinely surprising to me. And that plot twist (basically, the climax of the book) sets up two fairly clear options for what the denoument will be. At that point I was REALLY invested in the characters, so I really wanted to find out which option the author would give us. So I had that feeling of racing through the final pages and yet not wanting them to end. Delicious!

    I’ll be really interested in your thoughts when you finish it!

    1. equotah Post author

      Oooh! Thanks for the additional analysis, Sarah. I’m loving the book!

      I’m with you. I knew “sort of” how my novel would end long before I knew what would happen in the middle.


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