Reading like a writer and writing like a reader

First, as a total digression, my book comes out one month from today! I’m freaking out a little, but mostly in a good way. I’m super excited and looking at a crazy calendar of giveaways, signings, blog tours, and (no doubt) an emotional roller coaster.

Last week I taught a class on reading like a writer and writing like a reader to a group of aspiring teen authors, which was a lot of fun. I thought since I had the handout all made up, I’d share it here as well. We learn a lot by writing, by critiquing and being critiqued, by reading books about writing, but I believe there are some things we can only learn by reading, and reading widely. So, here are some questions I ask myself when I read (and try to ask myself about my own work when I edit, though that tends to be more difficult):

Reading like a writer, writing like a reader

E.B. Wheeler

Writing is a series of choices. Slow down and study what the writer is doing. Take their story apart and examine each piece so you learn what to do (and what not to do!) to build your own story.

Remember: There’s no one right way to tell a story—you’re not looking to copy another author’s style or steal the magic formula; you’re looking for tools that you can use as you develop your own voice and style.

Reading questions:

  • Why did the author write this (what seems to be its purpose and theme)?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is the form and genre?
  • What is the point of view and who is the point of view character? Why might the author have chosen that POV?
  • What kind of language is the author using—formal, informal, modern, archaic? What effect does this create?
  • How does the author use sentence length to create rhythm and mood?
  • How is the author using dialogue? Does it advance the plot and illuminate characters?
  • How is the author using descriptions? Does it distract from the story or enhance it by adding to the mood and reflecting the character’s frame of mind?
  • Am I ever bored or confused? Why?
  • What kind of tension is in each scene (i.e., active conflicts–man versus man, man versus nature, man versus self–unsolved mysteries, dramatic irony [when the reader knows something characters don’t, either good or bad], ticking bombs, romantic tension, social tension [including embarrassment], interpersonal tension, moral dilemmas)? Does it vary from scene to scene–a new kind of tension rising as a previous one is resolved? Does the tension relate back to character, conflict, and stakes–the character’s struggle to reach their ultimate goal?
  • How does the author transition between scene/sequel/scene (action/reaction/action)?
  • What about this resonates (or doesn’t)? Is the author “telling the truth?” Do the emotions feel fresh and authentic, or like canned “Hollywood” reactions?
  • Are there techniques here I can use in my own writing?
  • What would I do differently if I had written this piece?

Write your first draft for you—have fun, write what you would like to read. Don’t worry yet about if it’s any good. THEN edit for your readers. Dig into your writer’s toolbox and pull out whatever’s going to help them enjoy the story more.

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