Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Reading like a writer.

Every 'how to write' book and webpage includes the mantra that we must read. Read anything, and everything. More than that - we must read as writers.

The pages of bumf that accompanies my first MA module instruct me to read as a writer. I must keep a reading log, note down anything that excites me, or surprises me, or betrays the writer's thinking.

I've tried this before. And it's not so easy. For a start, I read in all sorts of unusual places. In bed, of course, and on the sofa in my sitting room. In the garden (on precious warm days, with the drone of bees and the smell of mown grass from next door). I can read while I'm stirring a saucepan. Read in the bath (though I rarely have time). When my children were little I would read while pushing a swing (Bad idea. Doesn't do the back any good). I read on buses and trains. Leaning against the wall by the bus stop. In cafes. In restaurants if I'm eating alone. Anywhere it is possible to hold a book. But there are too few occasions when it is also possible to hold a notebook and pen.

But that, I can see, is making excuses. So I've bought some little stickers; it is easy to slip them into a page if I notice something, and then go back later to think about it again.

Even so, I find it hard to know what it is I'm meant to be noticing. Years ago, when I tried to keep a reading log, I gave up as I found I had no idea what I was looking for, which made writing it down pointless. My MA tutor has given a list of questions, which give me notes at the moment are scrappy, and mostly meaningless; but I have a term to practise this. There are other students to bounce ideas with (when we learn to listen to each other). A tutor who might drop in a thought or two. It is, I confess, exciting. By Christmas I might have a handle on what reading like a writer looks like - and feels like.

Unless, of course, any of you know better - are there short-cuts? Codes? An alternative to this try-it-and-see method? (Helping me out is not cheating - it's just helping!)


  1. Hi Jo,

    As I am currently in the midst of raising a young family I can relate to your description of grabbing reading wherever there is oppportunity. Yesterday I was reading while waiting for the school bus to arrive with my boys on, with baby girl in her push chair, rolling her back and forth with my foot.

    as you say though, not always easy to make notes when reading on the run. Your stickers idea sounds like a winner. I do a similar thing with some semit transparent strip post-its that I stick over the text I want to return to.

    As for reading like a writer, I think its best to start with looking at the bits your really like/that really work and the bits you really don't like/that don't really work. Sticker those then go back and try to say why they work/don't work. Just as we all write differently we all read as writers differently, pick up on different things. I'm sure you'll get to grips with it. The prompt questions on the course are pretty helpful at directing us to key areas too.

  2. Dan - you are a star. Thanks for the support, and ideas, and general encouragement.

  3. Dan has already said what I wanted to say. What do/don't you like and why? How could it have been different?

    Funnily enough, i find this much easier to do for film and TV than I do when I'm reading. I think it's because I love to lose myself in the book.

  4. Thanks Sarah.

    Interesting that you find this easier with film and television - so do I. I wonder if it's something to do with books making us do all the visual work ourselves? So it's hard to engage to creative bits of ourselves (imagining it all) and the critical bit at the same time? Will ponder that.

    Have also had advice to pause after each section and note things that did and didn't work for me, and why. Will also try that.

  5. I've been recommended to read a book to learn about tension and fight scenes. As I'm looking for something in particular, I think (hope!) it will be easier to identify.

    Maybe you could concentrate on sections, like characterisation? What makes a character seem alive? What makes the voice work? And work through it that way?

    As always, if, while you're reading, something jerks you out of the story (I'll sometimes find myself thinking "You could have shown that."), then you could note that down too.

  6. CD - that's a great thought, thanks. We have been given some questions to answer - and some of them help. I'm sure I'll get better with practice!