Writing to Read and Reading to Write

This is a bit off the beaten path, but it has to do with a recently-published article that addresses the way I read in a curious way.

Allow me to preface. I was an English tutor for years. My golden years of tutoring were spent at my college’s writing center, where structured training gave me wonderful, concrete tools that I still use to this day in my job as an editor.

My favorite technique was one I felt not only helped the students I guided but also helped me as I wrote my own essays.  It’s a skill worth cultivating, and it’s simply this: learn how to read as a reader, not as an author.

It’s a bit infantilizing to ask writers to role play, I know. But you can’t imagine how revelatory it is as a college student to pick up an essay you wrote and think to yourself, “I am now my teacher, reading this essay for the first time.” All of a sudden, reading as your audience, you see that things you thought were implied don’t seem clear at all. The point of the essay isn’t obvious. Quotes from other sources are dropped into the text in ways that leave you thinking, “wait, what does your quoted material have to do with what you were just saying a sentence ago?” When you take some time away from your writing (enough time to help you forget your own train of thought as you wrote), distance yourself from your perspective as author, and consciously try to place yourself in the position a first-time reader, you can eliminate a great deal of spots where your writing is unclear.

My experience doing this role playing concerns expository writing–either I’d be doing it with my own essays or helping students do it with theirs. I write and edit mostly presentations of arguments, analyses, and explanations, both at work and in my spare time. Creative writing has never been my forte, and I don’t often write more than one or two creative pieces a year. Yet my greatest recreational delight, as you can probably gather from this blog, comes from reading creative work.

I love knowledge, but I need the information to be beamed into my head via laser or something. Reading nonfiction absolutely puts me to sleep. Even the things I’m most interested in–history, biography, natural science, cars, and yes, even grammar and language–can only command my total focus for a few minutes when presented in book form. I read almost solely fiction because I adore stories, characters, symbols, experiences. I can’t create it myself for the life of me. But I love to enjoy others’ work.

An article called “The 10 Commandments of Reading Like a Writer” showed up in my Twitter feed the other day. Because its wording so closely mirrors (yet puts a twist on) my mantra of “read your writing like a reader,” I was intrigued. And I found that, though I’m not at all a creative writer, many of the things the article’s author lists are exactly the things I do when I read. It’s why many of my blog posts even exist.

The author, K.M. Weiland, first says that you should be able to see both the good and the bad in the authors writing and, instead of focusing on it, learn from it. I’m often very much aware of an author’s technique, and I’m often thinking of where it’s going wrong and right. I’m lucky that I’m able to be caught up in a story while understanding there’s a real person who’s penned the thing, composing every word and orchestrating every turn. Paying attention to these things things doesn’t detach me from a novel, and in that sense, I think I’m pretty blessed. But my ultimate goal isn’t to write myself–it’s to understand what I like about writers and help me know why I think what I read is good or bad.

The article’s author also encourages her reader to take in works that are superior to what you produce, saying “Absorb them like a sponge. Figure out how they tick. Supposedly we’re each an aggregate of the ten people with whom we spend the most time. Same goes for the authors we read.” Funny–I should be a better creative writer from all my reading, shouldn’t I? I spend way more time with great authors than I do actual people. But I know what she’s saying. I love becoming acquainted with a really great author and taking in all their techniques. I love experiencing something and then trying to figure out how he or she did that–made me feel the way I felt, react the way I react. In a lot of ways, I feel it’s like watching a magic trick and allowing myself to be totally astonished. Then I learn how the trick is done. But seeing the trick isn’t ruined for me once the secret is revealed; rather, it’s enhanced when I watch someone with great skill do it so smoothly and with such finesse that I’m still enraptured. And awareness I would never have the grace to pull off the same maneuvers only enhances the experience.

The author of the article suggests to mark up your books like crazy, which I also do. Anyone who’s ever let into either my personal book stash or Kindle will see an abundance of observations, connections, and (in books with which I’ve had bones to pick) obscenely-worded tirades that would make the squeamish blush. I revere the skills of the author, but I never have been the type to see books themselves as sacred objects. They are alive and meant for interaction. Writing all over books is how I interact. I image this may result in problems one day–I might skew a future reading by prejudicing myself toward old interpretations just by their presence in the margins when I’d otherwise be open to a new interpretation. But if I find this happening, I just buy a new copy. The glory of the Gutenberg is that books aren’t sacred. They’re a dime a dozen (literally so, at garage sales and your library book sales).

But the article’s reading-as-writer point I liked best and related to most is the “study specific topics” suggestion. Here, she suggests doing what I do to particularly riveting songs–dissecting them piece by piece.

If I find a song a really like and that I also think is complex, I like to go through the track several times, once focusing only on the bass line, once only on rhythm guitar, once only on drums, etc., until I’ve figured out how every piece fits together. Weiland suggests doing a similar thing in her “reading to write” article, specifically “studying narrative, dialogue, character arcs, or foreshadowing.” It’s not often I’ll actually go through and read a book over and over, once looking at character arcs, once examining foreshadowing, etc., but I do try very hard to pay attention to how all these the instruments come together to make a symphony. And I think you can only do that if you’re cognizant of all the parts.

Anyway, I thought it was very interesting that I, without ever having any hopes (or illusions) of becoming a novel-writer, accidentally practice all the reading techniques she suggests for becoming a better novel-writer. I wonder if it’s from all that advocating for role playing in my college’s writing center. The reverse of reading your own writing as if you were the audience is to actually be the intended audience and try to understand the author. And I very much love to use a book to pick the author’s brain. It allows me to enjoy what I read so much more and appreciate a talent I simply don’t have.

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