You may have heard it before: read like a writer.
What does that even mean? What if I just started writing? What do I look for? And if I find something that a writer would find (whatever that is), what do I do with it?
If you were anything like me when I started out, you probably read kind of mindlessly, absorbing stuff blindly as you went along for the pure enjoyment of it.
Honestly, it’s hard to slow down in the middle of an engrossing novel and be like oh, the alliterative phrase in paragraph 2 really contributes to the rhythmic flow of the prose. Trying to juggle attention to technique and dramatic structure and recurring motifs is a little overwhelming.
But there are ways to break it down.
I will explain how I put together a creative and scientific approach to reading like a writer through methods of deconstruction, modeling, and self-reflection.
First, I suggest finding a piece of writing (whether it be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, whatever) that…
- Deeply moves you on an emotional level
- Reflects the kind of style you are aspiring to
- Is either a Pulitzer prize winning novel, best seller, award winning story or somehow acknowledged as a great piece of writing (so you start with the very best material)
*For models that have the highest amount of insight, I suggest getting invested in a novel because of its scale and breadth. You can really get a sense of the writer’s artistry over a longer span of story.
In artistic genres like music and art, students practice Mozart’s etudes or sketch work of Michelangelo to learn the master’s approach to brushstroke or musical harmony. Models figure prominently in the visual and musical arts so…why not apply the same principle to writing?
I decided to model Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes. A young Irish immigrant’s story about his family, the poverty they endured in Limerick, and his dreams of coming to America.
When I read his writing, I experienced immediate empathic entry into the story. I could smell the stench of the chamber pots, feel the cold rain on my skin, and taste the satisfaction of lemonade after his days of hard work. I asked myself why.
I spent time pouring over the pages of his book and found his style was marked by straightforward language, repetition of certain colorful terms that reflected the culture, detailed layering of images, and skillful arrangement of scene.
Model Analysis Under the Hood
Second, highlight, write in the margins, and engage physically with the text itself. This stage involves more architectural scrutiny. We’re just looking at the mechanics of the sentences and paragraphs.
For example, I underlined concrete examples of each abstract writerly thing I noticed in Angela’s Ashes so that when I flipped through again for a second impression I would read only what I highlighted.
And I flipped through a third and fourth time to imprint what I had highlighted into my unconscious.
Re-reading is critical in this step. The first read-through is purely for the feel/mood and overall impression of the story, paragraph, or section. The following read-throughs are for deconstruction. (This is also training for revision of your own writing. You will need to know how to self-analyze.)
- Repetitive phrases. Does the repetition of certain phrases deepen the first occurrence of them in chapter 1? Do I feel more grounded in the world of the characters because their terminology for things is consistent?
- Jumps in time. When does the author leave the present scene? Why does the author leave out the part about walking to the door and plant the reader inside the room in the next scene instead?
- Dramatic structure. What is the sequence of events? If I rearranged events, how would that change the story’s meaning/flow/logic?
- Stylistic choices. Does the author vary sentence length? How does that contribute to the narrative flow? Does the author use a lot of the word “and” in longer sentences for a stream of consciousness effect?
Model Analysis Molecular Structure
Third, begin to address your chosen section of writing in smaller chunks. Here’s where some cool creative stuff comes in.
Write down words that you feel are most emotive in the sequence in which they occur on a piece of paper. Then assign them colors. Yep, take out those Crayola markers from third grade. This is what I call interdisciplinary immersion. I believe the more we engage our different senses simultaneously in interaction with a two-dimensional passage, the more we experience the life in the words on the page.
Once, you finish your synthesthesia exercise then study the individual words (verbs are a good place to start) for their connotative meanings, moods, and tones and how their subtle meanings interact with each other. Say them aloud.
For example, notice the words I highlighted in this passage from Angela’s Ashes:
“The room had a fireplace where we could boil water for our tea or an egg in case we ever came into money. We had a table and three chairs and a bed, which Mam said was the biggest she had ever seen.” (I didn’t include colors.)
Interpretative analysis: The room, a bare disembodied description, is said to have a fireplace instead of the fireplace being in the room. This room is where they do most of their living. It is a place where they boil water, a place of warmth and heat. For tea or an egg sounds like they can have one or the other, whichever they could afford, when they come into money. See how the room at the beginning contrasts with the phrase came into money like money is a much preferred room or place.
Also, see how McCourt says the room had versus we had. The room seems to figuratively possess more important things than we: a fireplace, a space for boiling water and drinking tea or eating an egg as opposed to a table, three chairs, and a bed though Mam prizes the piece of furniture with a simplistic observation: the biggest she had ever seen.
Now, you are experiencing just two sentences on a much deeper level, reading like a writer, peering into the structure of the writing as it shares its secrets.
Model Mimicry Replicating
Lastly, copy. But copy meaningfully. If you have an existing project, you are working on, create a prompt from your model analysis that also addresses a theme, scene element, or recurring image in your piece so you can sort of mind meld with what you just studied.
If you want to generate something new, the method still applies. Fashion a prompt from your model.
As just a hypothetical example, using the two sentences previously mentioned, I would write about the bed and what it means to the narrator versus Mam.
Focus on honing one of the techniques you admired in your analysis while you write like keeping the prose straightforward and unencumbered by too many adjectives. Keep your model nearby and reference it frequently.
If you are really struggling, copy the text word for word and go back in replacing nouns with your own. Expand from there. Substitute characters, add imagery, cut out a sentence, etc.
Keeping your model in front of you is KEY!
Don’t worry about losing your own voice in this.
- You chose to model something that appealed to your unique sensibilities.
- You are picking out things that speak to your individual emotional make-up.
- You are equipping yourself with the skills of masters so that you can learn how to best express your originality.
In conclusion, though I am still refining the method, I do feel it can work wonders for your writing practice. It has for me.
My writing was, to be blunt, completely over-wrought. I was operating from my own myopic view of what sounded good without referring to the huge canon of great work that came before me.
That’s a lot like trying to paint a portrait that without having studied the techniques that others have mastered and passed down throughout time.
Give it a try. See what happens. Be open to whatever you uncover.