Six impossible things

Reading like a writer

Back in the day, one of the pieces of advice I got that drove me crazy was “you have to learn to read like a writer.” I didn’t know what that meant, and no one ever really explained it to me. Evidently it was one of those things that was so obvious that everyone but me knew what it was.

Then one day I was stuck on a scene involving several characters talking to one another. I had no clue how to handle the speech tags (I didn’t call them that, because I didn’t know what speech tags were; I just knew that everything I tried looked wrong).

So I went to my bookshelf and pulled down one of my favorite books, more or less at random, and turned to a section of dialog. I remember paging around a bit, looking for a spot where three or four characters were all talking together. And when I got to it, I didn’t just read the scene; instead, I looked at the lines of dialog…specifically, at how I knew who was saying what in each one.

The first thing I noticed was that most of the lines did not end with “he said” or any equivalent. Some had the “he said” in the middle, or at the beginning, instead of at the end; some didn’t have a “he said” at all. Sometimes the characters did something or thought about something in the middle of a dialog paragraph, and quite often when they did, there were no “he saids” anywhere around. And so on.

I came away from that page with a much clearer idea of how to do what I wanted to do with my dialog. Much later, I realized that that was what people had been talking about when they said “read like a writer.”

What “reading like a writer” means is asking “what is this writer doing here?” or “how did the writer get that effect?” and then going and looking for the answer. It means you look at the words and phrases, at the way sentences and paragraphs are put together, at where the paragraph breaks and scene breaks are and what sort of sentences come before and after them, at the structure of scenes and chapters, instead of relaxing into them and just reading them for whatever effect they have.

It means paying attention to more than the story. You notice when the writer strings together chains of parallel structure, or how often (and exactly where) they use sentence fragments, dip into a character’s thoughts, provide graphic details (or don’t). You pay attention to rhythm and word choices, to italics and tenses, to what’s in dialog and what isn’t, to what’s implied and what’s explicit.

Most specifically, you look at what is on the page, not what you think is on the page. More than once, I’ve had someone tell me quite positively that something was or wasn’t in a particular book, and had to show them the text in order to convince them that they were wrong. More than once, I’ve been wrong myself, and not realized it until I looked at the text and saw that X wasn’t in the story at all (or was there all the time). And you can’t build yourself a solid toolbox of useful writing techniques if you’re remembering the effects of the words on the page, and not the actual words that are there.

This is a lot harder than it sounds. I’ve had people inform me flat out that James White does not use any infodumps in his “Sector General” books…and had those same people come back suitably embarrassed after looking at the actual text and realizing that White nearly always uses a long narrative summary in the middle of one of the early briefing scenes, so as to get very lightly over the description of the case history of whatever medical problem the main characters will face. They hadn’t registered it as an infodump because White transitions into and out of the narrative summary so smoothly (and makes the information so interesting).

Yet moving seamlessly into and out of a long, interesting narrative summary is exactly the sort of thing I, as a writer, want to learn how to do…and that means that I have to learn to see what he did at the words-and-sentences level, so that I notice that hey, there’s a big infodump in the middle of this scene! And then I can ask, how did he do that without me noticing when I was just reading? And then I can maybe figure out exactly what he did, so that I have a chance of duplicating the effect some time when I need it.

I don’t read like a writer all the time. Mostly, I read to enjoy what I’m reading. But every so often I come across something in another writer’s work that makes me stop and ask myself, “How did he/she do that?” And then I go back to see if I can figure it out. Most of them don’t stick in my memory; it’s become a habit.

9 Comments
  1. Excellent advice (and explanation of that advice), but I am so glad to hear you don’t do this all the time. Sometimes it’s fun to analyse technique, but sometimes it’s fun not to.

  2. I love reading a book and finding a passage that particularly strikes me. When that happens, I look at why I like that particular passage. So at first I read for the pleasure of it, then I go back and analyze what that author was doing. There are so many great authors from whom to learn!

  3. Learning to see what words are actually *doing* for a hard and a very useful skill for me. And the whole ‘reading like a writer’ has become an extremely valuable skill now that I’ve started to translate fiction. I don’t just look at ‘what’s there’ and try to translate it as closely as possible in as many directions as possible, I am asking myself ‘what is the writer doing here’ and make decisions based on that. That does add another layer of complexity, but I feel it makes for a better result.

  4. As to infodumps in James White, I used to ask

    “what infodump is present in /every/ Sector General Book” ?

    Takes half a page too yet people have to reminded it’s always there.

    Well ?

    It’s the explanation of the classification system – AAC and DBG etc.

    • Tiana – It usually takes me two or three times over a given passage (good OR bad) before I figure out what’s going on. And sometimes it’s easier to figure out what NOT to do, from reading someone who’s made a mistake, than to pick apart someone who’s doing it all seamlessly.

      green_knight – I hadn’t thought of translation – possibly because I’m not fluent enough in German or French to “translate” more than high school exercises – but I bet that would be a really good way of studying an author’s technique. I read an article once by a woman who’d been translating Japanese poetry into English, and the choices she had to make were fascinating.

      Mike D – Yup, that’s another one, though half a page isn’t as noticeable as the two-to-four pages of medical briefing. On the other hand, if you have a necessary background infodump that needs to go in every book, it’d better be short, or your ongoing readership is going to get annoyed after a book or two.

  5. And interestingly, reading like a writer is not the same, quite, as reading like an editor (though there can be similarities)… And it’s definitely not the same as reading like a critic!

    The only thing a certain college class did that was useful was get people to pick out a descriptive passage of 1-2 pages and write it, long-hand. And even then, it wasn’t presented as well as it could have been, but it definitely was useful.

    (The rest of the class was nigh dreck; the teacher was a Flannery O’Conner fan and apparently took seriously the witticism O’Conner wrote about how universities don’t squelch enough would-be writers.)

  6. this needs a warning attached.

    It can affect how you read for pleasure. Forever.

  7. I have a much easier time reading like a writer when I’m reading poetry, which doesn’t make sense since I’m not, in any sense, a poet. Though maybe that’s why I have to read poetry like a writer: I’m not good at poetry myself, so to get anything out of it, I have to read very carefully and suss out exactly how and why the poet is doing this or that. In fiction, it’s so much easier to just get lost in the fun of the story and I forget to read like a writer, even when I’m supposed to be.

  8. There are actually a few books and stories I have specifically marked as “THIS is how you do slow-build romance”, “THIS is how you do a sex scene”, “THIS is how you do a fight scene”, etc. It’s incredibly helpful.

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