What writer is not familiar with Stephen King’s advice: ‘Read a lot, write a lot’? For him, reading is important because ‘it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing.’ Reading like writers achieves greater intimacy and a deeper understanding of process, not with the aim of mimicking a writer’s style, but to identify craft that we can engage in our own distinctive voices. Why? Victor Hugo gives us a clue: ‘…to read is to light a fire, every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.’
What happens to us as we read?
Unlike the capacity for spoken language, there is no genetic ‘programme’ for the mental skills needed to read, or to write. We spoke our stories for two million years before we invented writing systems; it’s a new experience for the human species, so each person’s brain has to learn by trial and error to make the necessary neural connections to understand the meaning of the lines, shapes and dots on the page when we read, and to apply those signs and symbols to express our own meanings when we write.
Obviously, the more we practise both, the more skilled we become, but there is much more to it than that, as Livia Blackburne, a brain scientist, explains in her essay From Words to Brain.
Reading activates not only our brains but our bodies, too. When we first focus our eyes on a word, it is decoded into the meaning it stands for; parts of the brain dealing with the senses then ‘convert’ this into images, sounds, smells or sensations; other parts that work with emotions produce feelings; memory regions of our brain work with all of these to add our own elements, and through all of these ‘sparks’, the story is interpreted according to our own experience and knowledge.
But that is not all: when we read an active verb like ‘run’ or ‘punch’, areas of the brain that control limb movement are stimulated, and our pulse may increase. We really do ‘feel’ stories with our bodies and minds. And all of this happens within a nanosecond. The same activity takes place in a writer’s or oral storyteller’s brain when they tell a story.
Why read like a writer:
Applying this to our own reading, we can appreciate how words and phrases from the writer’s mind, resonate within our own – this is the point where writers’ and readers’ voices meet. For each of us, certain writers’ words, the images they create, or the ways in which they are put together, will resonate more than others, resulting in particular stories and characters that we find most absorbing, affecting and memorable.
In our role as writers, we use the signs and symbols of written language in an attempt to recreate in the reader’s mind what is produced in ours. The match is rarely exact of course; we’ve already seen that individual life experience and personality play a role in extracting meaning from the written word. But if we know what we are aiming for, and the sort of emotional and imaginative connections made by readers, it helps us to construct our stories in ways that potentiate those effects.
When we put the two together and read like a writer, we examine the resonance, dissect the author’s process to see how it works, and identify techniques we can adapt to our own style. This does not detract from our originality: it simply helps us to express our unique ideas and inspiration in the most effective ways. We need craft to give voice to our muse.
How to read like a writer:
Read straight through first, for the pleasure of participating in the entire story, being aware only of the emotions you feel, recollections it triggers, and the overall ambience it creates.
With the arc of the story fresh in your mind, scan through the book to look at the structure: what route through the events did the author choose; where did it begin and end, and through whose points of view was the tale told – who were our guides along that route. Think about how each of these factors affected your appreciation of the story, and how that might have changed if these had been different.
Follow one or two of the characters through the narrative: when and how is personality revealed; how do we learn about their past, their hopes, their potential; what makes their actions convincing and why do you remember a particular character. Look at a couple of minor characters, too: are they equally ‘real’ – how did the author achieve that? If not, what would have made them more engaging?
Select a chapter or section and ‘close read’ the language: examine the rhythm and sound of the sentences and when and how they vary; the nature of verbs, adjectives, and metaphors – how do these support or enhance the atmosphere of the story, the characters’ traits, and the emotions they trigger. How is language used to distinguish between characters’ voices, or to indicate change of mood or setting? Try altering a few of the words and re-arranging sentences to see what difference that makes, and work out why.
In the same way, examine whatever elements are of particular interest to you at the moment, or impressed you most – dialogue, setting, pace, the central idea or theme – and trace the way the author accomplishes these through timing, word selection, and narration
We are not carrying out a line edit, assessing the ‘correctness’ of prose – there are probably a dozen ways of correctly structuring any particular sentence depending on the result we want to create – instead, we consider the choices the author made, and think about why they made them and what they wanted to achieve. ‘People write or speak sentences in order to produce an effect, and the success of a sentence is measured by the degree to which the desired effect has been achieved.’ (Stanley Fish).
The classic writer’s question when creating a story is: What if? But when we read, we ask questions like: Why these words and these traits? How was this effect created? When is character and plot revealed? Where does the story start and end, and where are conflicts introduced? In this sense, reading is writing.
We cannot know for sure why an author made a particular decision on phrasing or point of view, and we may make assumptions that he or she did not intend, but that doesn’t matter for our present purpose. We don’t want to copy what is there, but to examine the effects of it upon us, and identify the techniques that produced it. We can then assess which options work best for us by trying them out in our own writing with our own voice.
What to read:
William Faulkner suggests we should, ‘Read everything […] just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.’
Clearly, much can be learnt from ‘great authors’, those whose works still appeal after decades, even centuries; the bulk of Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, is a word by word reflection and commentary on excerpts from such works. Useful though this is to demonstrate the method and to indicate the sort of craft to look for from different authors, these are Prose’s own responses to her favourite books, interpreted through her own experience: important for us, as writers, is to make our own choice of what to read, and to come to independent interpretations.
We also benefit from close reading contemporary authors creating stories from within a modern consciousness, because our 21st century experience differs from that of our predecessors; what happens when we read has not changed, but much of language, meanings, concerns, and world views, have. Most of the ‘classic’ reads, too, originate from European thought, but we can now tap into an increasing wealth of writing from other cultures and perspectives.
Edward Albee recommends we also read the ‘bad stuff’. If you find an opening that leaves you cold; an information dump that has you flicking forward to find where the story starts; characters that are as convincing as your cat’s favourite toys – read on: ask questions to work out how that story failed. It helps us to recognise more readily what to avoid. Albee gives another reason to read ‘bad stuff’, too: ‘It’s very encouraging’.
At this stage, you might find your veins throbbing as you think of struggling through your existing to-be-read list, stacking books in the fridge for want of enough shelf space, and how you could possibly find the time for this. Close reading all 848,000 words of The Luminaries could consume the rest of your writing life, though it’s not the longest single-volume novel in English – Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa has over a million words – so I suggest being selective about what you close read, looking at structure and storyline, and then examining the minutiae of words and phrases for only a chapter or a few passages.
A good place for practising this approach is with a short story, especially a flash fiction because the limited word count requires the writer to scrutinise every single word and piece of punctuation. You could start with Runnin’ the River, which gained first place in the Flash500 competition.
Other resources and references:
Livia Blackburne’s From Words to Brain (2010) is a digital-format essay published by 40K Books – fascinating and easy to read (my PDF edition is only 9 pages).
There is a chapter on new research in the psychology of fiction in my ebook From Apes to Apps: how humans evolved as storytellers and why it matters (out of publication but available for private study, use the CONTACT page to request a copy).
Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (2006) is published by Harper Perennial in print and audio formats.
Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence, and how to read one (2005), published by Harper Collins, explores theory and unpicks sentences of a diverse range of writers from Aristotle to Agatha Christie.
More tips on researching, writing, editing and publishing will be found in: Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author
Dr Trish Nicholson is the author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity. The first global social history of storytelling.