How to Read like a Writer

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Reading

Here at DIY MFA, we talk a lot about writing, but reading is also an important part of the program. And reading isn’t about just sitting on the beach with a book in one hand and a Mai Tai in the other. You have to read like a writer. That’s where this post comes in.

Most traditional MFA programs have a literature component built into the curriculum. So too does DIY MFA. The only difference between the way MFA programs approach literature study and the way we do it at DIY MFA is that you get to choose the books you read. That said, there is a method to reading in DIY MFA, a method that allows you to get the most out of your reading. Sure, you can lie on the beach and read but literature study has to be a little more structured.

Remember: Read like a writer.

Why read like a writer?

Reading for pleasure is great, but if you want to be a writer, you need to read like a writer. This means you don’t read just to find out what happens next in the story. You read in order to figure out what the writer is doing and how she achieves a particular effect so that you can recreate something similar in your own writing.

Creative Practical Reading (AKA CPR) focuses on reading for the basics first, then moving on to higher level questions and issues. In medicine, CPR is all about making sure the injured person has a pulse and is breathing first. You worry about other problems like scrapes and bruises later. The same is true in Creative Practical Reading, where we look at the fundamentals of a piece of writing first, turning to higher-order aspects of it later.

Note: If you want some help figuring out which books to read like a writer, please check out this link: The Essential Reading List, which will help you put together your own custom-made DIY MFA reading list.

Read like a Collector

As readers, we approach a piece by collecting information and figuring out what the author is saying. When you’re reading a textbook, highlighter in hand, trying to gather and understand as much information as possible, that’s collector mode.

Think like a reporter and ask those basic W questions: who, what, when, where. Don’t worry about why or how just yet, though.

  • What is the author saying?
  • What point is the author making in the piece?
  • What is the tone or “attitude” of the piece?

Read like a Philosopher

This is the type of critical reading we learn in high school when we analyze Shakespeare and try to determine the meaning, the why of the piece. We put on the philosopher hat in order to interpret a piece of writing, to figure out why the author wrote it and what it means.

I remember being a teenager and wondering: “How do we really know what Shakespeare meant? I mean, he’s been dead for hundreds of years!” We’d have these loooong discussions in English class, trying to get at the heart of what a piece of writing meant, but it all felt futile. The truth is, we can’t know with 100% certainty what an author means by something unless we have the benefit of being able to ask him or her. The best we can do at the Philosopher level is infer meaning from the words on the page. Because words on the page is all we have to go on. Or is it?

Once you’ve got a handle on the basic information, you can move into a more philosophical mode and start interpreting the piece. This is when you start asking why.

  • Why is the author writing this piece?
  • What does the author mean when he or she says [fill in the blank]?
  • What is it making me feel and why is it making me respond that way?

Read like a Revolutionary!

This brings us to the level that turns the other two on their heads. Most of the time, readers get stuck in Collector or Philosopher mode, but it’s only when we put on the Revolutionary hat that we start reading like a writer.

When you read like a revolutionary, you don’t stop at what or why, you also focus on the how. You look at a piece of writing and ask “How did the author DO that?” which is just a half-breath away from asking “How can I do it too?”

Reading like a Revolutionary (in other words, reading like a writer) means understanding that every author has an agenda, that every piece of writing has a purpose. Once we begin reading with an eye toward that purpose, we will see how writers shape and craft their words to accomplish what they want for the piece. We start seeing writing not just as a form of communication or a record of information, but as a method of manipulation.

As we read like a Revolutionary, we will notice that the author is trying to make us respond in a certain way. The minute we notice this, we can make a conscious decision whether we will allow ourselves to play along. It is only in being aware of how a writer is crafting a work that we can form our own thoughts and opinions without getting pulled into that web.

Now, don’t get me wrong: most writing is not quite that sinister. I use words like “manipulate” and “agenda” not so much because I think writers have dark ulterior motives and are trying to brainwash their readers but because I want readers to be aware that there is more to a piece of writing than just the words on the page. Even in the most innocuous writing, there is a point where we need to look at how the author is crafting the piece. For example, if you’re reading a suspenseful thriller, you can certainly let yourself get carried off by the excitement of the story. Or you can look at how the author is creating the suspense and making you keep turning page after page.

Think about your response to the piece and try to determine the following:

  • How does the author get you to respond in this way?
  • What techniques does he or she use? What works and what doesn’t?
  • How can you apply some of these techniques to your own writing?

Do you have to read like a Revolutionary all the time?

In a word, no. In fact, I tend to find it exhausting to read that way for more than a few paragraphs or pages. After all, sometimes you just want to get swept away by a good story. And that’s perfectly fine.

When do I read like a Revolutionary?

I most definitely read that way whenever I am approaching a piece that is overtly opinionated (anything from the news or about current events). I also read this way when I’m struggling with some aspect of my own writing and I want to understand how another author accomplished the thing I’m trying to do in my own work. And sometimes, when I’m reading for pleasure, I’ll put on the revolutionary hat when something in the writing catches me by surprise. It’s in moments like those that I most want to know how the author managed to pull off that sleight-of-hand trick that I totally didn’t see coming. That’s when I go back and reread portions of a book the book to see if I can spot hints of how the trick is done.

Because if I figure out how the author pulled off that trick, that can only mean one thing: someday I’ll be able to do it too. And that is the real reason I want to read like a writer.

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