View Full Version : Reading like a writer.

02-25-2007, 06:05 AM
Ok, this may be an incredibly basic question - but when you read a novel or a magazine article as a writer, what do you look for?

I don't mean the involuntary "I wouldn't do it like that" that happens when you read a book for entertainment - but the serious study of a work to help your writing or analyse a journal style.

Are you looking for the structure? Overall plot? Pacing? Word choice? Chapter length? Characters?

How do you approach it?

02-25-2007, 06:06 AM
Depends on whether it's a novel or a magazine article;)

02-25-2007, 06:08 AM
wow - that was quick.

OK - it's novels I'm most interested in, but I thought this might benefit a wider audience than just the novel writing forum - so information about both would be helpful.

02-25-2007, 06:11 AM
As 'fiction novels' (that was for you, PeeDee) are what I read most, I'll comment on those.

I look for dialogue that rings true. Okay, the characters might not be from my world, but is it true to their own?

Headjumping. Dialogue tags. Adverbs. All my pet hates.

And I hate it when a woman is a doctor, lawyer, politician, and is described as, "Beautiful, accomplished lawyer, Megan..." or "Stunning, popular schoolteacher..."

What rot. As if how they look is more important than what they do.

Characters are more important to me than plot. If the characters are real, the plot will follow.

Also I don't like being told things. I dislike "Character A was this," or "Character B was that." Don't tell me; show me what they do to deserve having such a label.

Oh, and to me a satisfying conclusion is one in which not necessarily everyone ends up 'happy ever after'. I like ambiguous endings, those which show this particular episode in the characters' lives might be over, but their lives go on.

And Lord save me from the deus ex machina cop-out ending!

02-25-2007, 06:15 AM
That was rather negative. All the things I hate.

What do I like? Pacing. I don't want the conclusion to be too rushed, as if the author had a deadline and forced it into a set number of pages. Rushing it makes it seem contrived, but if it flows, I like that.

Characters with a distinct voice.

Ambiguous endings. Life isn't tied up in a neat little bow; neither should fiction be.

Snappy dialogue (sans tags). If the characters have distinct voices, you'll know who's talking without being told.

Linda Adams
02-25-2007, 06:20 AM
I read a lot of thrillers at one point to learn more about what a thriller was, since there's so little information available on the genre. So I was looking for elements that made it thriller and what made it different from mystery or suspense.

Will Lavender
02-25-2007, 06:31 AM
I'm a pretty lazy reader. Always have been. Somebody in graduate school told me once to read a book and pay attention to the language, but I almost never do that.

I pretty much read for plot and plot only.

Keeping that in mind, one thing I hate in the thriller genre is bloated endings. Seems like thriller writers want to go about 100 pages past where they should. Dan Brown's Angels and Demons is a good example: pretty good book, I thought, but it was 150 pages too long.

02-25-2007, 06:41 AM
I don't read like a writer. Even when I'm reading for BBT with my "editor" hat on, I'm not reading like an editor. I read like a reader, I watch movies and TV and listen to music open-minded. I takes what it gives me.

If it doesn't give me anything, then I stop paying attention and drift away.

If it gives me more than I expected, excites me, and makes me want to read it again, then I'm happy. Very few times have I read as a writer, though.

If I did, I would have noticed that Terry Pratchett doesn't use chapters in most of his books without having to read him in an interview saying "I don't use chapters in most of my books."

The closest I come to reading like a writer is if I read a really brilliant book that floors me. Then, my writerly half says in a quietly awed voice, "I could never write something like that. Not ever."

That's about it, with fiction novels (:D) anyway.

02-25-2007, 06:43 AM
The closest I come to reading like a writer is if I read a really brilliant book that floors me. Then, my writerly half says in a quietly awed voice, "I could never write something like that. Not ever."

I think that's what I'm looking for really - reading a text with an eye on "what makes this writer better than I am and how can I improve?"

02-25-2007, 06:44 AM
when I read novels with a writing eye, I am seaching for how a long winded yet smooth sentence grabbed me and kept til the end.... then analyze the how and why it worked...

02-25-2007, 06:47 AM
I think that's what I'm looking for really - reading a text with an eye on "what makes this writer better than I am and how can I improve?"

With the books that floor me, I've never been able to figure it out, but I haven't tried that hard. I admit, I've never sat down with a book to figure out "how he dun it."

Roger Zelazny's sheer scope and ideas in "The Chronicles of Amber" blew me away. His "Lord of Light" did likewise. The reason being, he took ideas that were completely original, he wrote them into good stories, and he had fun.

Okay. I can do that.

But that's in hindsight, with me sitting here just now and thinking about it. At the time of reading, it wouldn't even cross my mind. I'm an ideal reader, in that what's in my head is nothing more than what's on the page while I"m reading.

02-25-2007, 07:05 AM
I'm like PeeDee, in that I don't consciously try to read like a writer. On the first reading, if I do, it's a sign that the writing isn't captivating me. I have to make a very deliberate effort to analyze when I'm reading, if the stuff is any good at all.

If I do try to analyze, it's because I've recognized excellence of some kind and that's what I'll be looking for. Some authors, I'm watching the description. (I need to learn how to do that.) Others, I admire the clarity of their style, so I watch their word choices. Others, the subtlety and the layering. So what I look for is partly a function of what I need to know, and partly a function of what I think that author has to offer. Sometimes I even read authors I don't like, just to see what they're doing that other people like.

Jenan Mac
02-25-2007, 07:10 AM
I tend to read for rhythm. Some writers have a flow of language that's very lyrical, others are jarring, and most are somewhere in the middle. And there are characters I just wish I'd been the one to write.
I find myself doing that when I watch TV or movies, too, now. I so wish I'd been the one to invent Denny Crane.

02-25-2007, 08:30 AM
I try not to put on my writer's hat with I read fiction but it's not easy to do, especially when I first pick up a book. It usually takes me a while to really get into it. With my writer's hat on, I usually look for:

Realistic dialogue and character development (subtext, etc.)
POVs -- POV violations really jump out
Tension/suspense -- the "page-turning" effect; is it there, and how the author does it?
Narrative voice -- this one is more subjective than anything else
Info dumps
Coyness in storytelling

02-25-2007, 09:35 AM
Cath, are you reading as a writer to improve your own writing and study different techniques and ways of doing things or reading as a writer studying the markets?

02-25-2007, 09:40 AM
As PeeDee already said, I read like a reader.

I write like a writer.

02-25-2007, 11:16 AM
I definitely have two distinct modes of reading. One is purely for pleasure. The other is to deconstruct the writing. The work of certain authors is so compelling that I want to learn how they do it; how they construct their sentences, what words they use, their imagery, the way they build their plots, how often they bring in new information. I find it very helpful.

02-25-2007, 06:07 PM
Well, I had an experience most writers don't - the chance to discuss my book with a number of excellent editors prior to selecting a publisher. One of the questions I asked was, "Can you show me some books you did that are comparable to mine, and what you did with them?"

Being Aspergian, and analytic, I took all 50 of those books home and read them to see what the editors meant.

In some cases, the subject matter was similar. I looked at how the other authors described things and was struck by our similarities or differences.

In other cases, the writer was said to have similar voice or tone and I read the book carefully to get a feel for voice.

In other cases, the book was said to do for xxx what my book "will do for Asperger's." I read carefully to understand that.

And finally, I was given one fictionalized account of Asperger's that outsold almost all the non-fiction works. I studied it and the NF works to learn why.

I learned a great deal by hearing how editors categorized my story, and then studing the "similar" stories. For it would never have occurred to me to make most of those comparisons myself.

That was very educational.

Then, having selected an editor, I looked at other books she had done. Was there a similarity in how they sounded? Could I identify the same editor's touch in all of them?

The answer is, yes, you can see it if you look. At least I did. If you have something to compare to. But it wasn't what I expected.

I also found that you can take the big books from the front of a publisher's catalog (as a group) and compare them to the 1/4 page books at the back (as a group) or even books that were produced inexpensively as paperbacks. You will find the 2-pagers are just done better. Sentences read better; things don't come to a jarring halt very often. Errors of readability and sequence and even fact occur less often.

How did I learn that? Well, it was simple. The publishers gave me catalogs, and I reasonably enough concluded that the feature books in front were those the publisher put the most care into. Without a catalog, I'd have had no way to know which titles those were, or which were on the 1/4 pages in back.

I believe much of that difference is quality editing as opposed to different authors. That belief is borne out by my experience moving through the editing process myself. By that, I don't want to suggest that Joe Schmo at the corner is the next John Grisham, just waiting for a good editor. I am merely pointing out that a good editor makes a bigger contribution to the final work than I usually see credited in places like this.

I have now learned how much work it is, doing a quality edit like this. With 200,000 titles appearing in print every year, I understand how there are not enough editors to go around, devoting this level of care to a book. I'm very thankful my own work merited that, in the publisher's opinion. Otherwise, I would never have known.

I don't know how much help my post will be, because much of the appeal of my work is that I don't think like other people. So perhaps my non-standard thinking won't be transferrable; I don't know.

When I am done with editing and have a bit of time I will try and write a story of "what the editor did" in the case of my book in hopes that other writers can apply some of her techniques on their own, to improve the quality of their work.

I will certainly take much of what I have learned to heart as I write my next book.

Azure Skye
02-25-2007, 07:03 PM
I'm one of those who reads like a reader. The past few months I've thought about asking this same question here because I thought it might help my writing if I could learn to dissect what I read. Then I realized the reason I like to read is for enjoyment. I don't want to lose that. So most of the time I don't pay attention to the mechanics of the story, just the story, unless it's bad. Poopy dialogue will get my attention in a nano-second. But, I do that with movies, radio commercials, television commercials, television shows, and theatre as well.

There are a few other things that will jump out at me but only when it's bad. Things like poor character development, cheesiness, and slow plot development. But, like I said, I never pay attention to any of these things unless they're too obvious to ignore.

02-25-2007, 07:04 PM
I can't help but read as a writer. I'm critical like that.

But what I absorb from the books I read is the stuff that knocks my socks off. The stuff that breaks the rules but really works. Like, I recently read a novel that was in limited third, multiple viewpoints. Every once in a while it slipped--seamlessly--into first person. Knocked me out. I never, ever would have tried that.

02-25-2007, 07:31 PM
I understand how there are not enough editors to go around, devoting this level of care to a book.
The assessments that you've done are impressive and sound like they've given you some great insights. Thanks for appreciating the role of a good editor. They are hard to come by.

When I don't read as a reader, I more often find myself reading as an editor. It's disrupted me from completing a read of more than one book. Stupid little things I could overlook or ignore back in the pre-editor days are now untenable: awkwardly phrased sentences, strange dialogue tags, jumps in logic, characters exhibiting suddenly uncharacteristic behavior, even if only briefly.

I'd like to try reading like a writer at times, but if I'm not reading for work, I want to read for leisure and give my brain a break. I know what I like when I see it, and if I write something that's not it, I hope to identify it when I go through and edit.

02-25-2007, 07:46 PM
Are you looking for the structure? Overall plot? Pacing? Word choice? Chapter length? Characters?

How do you approach it?If it is a novel, I look for everything you listed along with how the writer succeeded or failed in my opinion. It’s also different reading a classic novel because I see things stated not to do, such as keeping the plot moving.

I’m always curious as to who and why there are changes to punctuation and writing styles. Have we all grown too comfortable with the here and now? Move it along type attitude? Tangent.

Back to the originally stated topic, I read a book and/or magazine’s title. I dislike titles created to draw you in yet have nothing to do with the book. This is a small detail and has nothing to do with reading like a writer. I go.

02-26-2007, 01:59 AM
Cath, are you reading as a writer to improve your own writing and study different techniques and ways of doing things or reading as a writer studying the markets?
At the moment as a way to improve and expand my understanding - I might need the other in the future.

02-26-2007, 03:27 AM

I came across this book in my library catalog today. The hardcover is out (an on hold for me at the library), but the paperback won't be released until April. Maybe your library has it?

02-26-2007, 03:55 AM
When I read a book, I don't look for any particular thing in it, only a good story. I don't care how the words flow, I don't care if they're flowery, clever (so long as I don't need a dictionary every other word, because then that's just showing off). I don't look out for whether they have or don't have too many tags, too many verbs or anything like that... I do like to know the characters though.
Out of every book that I've ever read since being a kid, there is only one that I picked up to read and gave up on it, because I couldn't get into it, and that was Lord of the rings. It bored me senseless, yet I love the films to it. I suppose I realized back then that I disliked reading fantasy novels. I need something that I feel is a little bit on the real side, even horror is better than fantasy to me. But like I said earlier, I did like the LOTR films and do like fantasy movies, but I can't stomach reading them. Anyway, like I said at the beginning, i don't care how it's written, just give me a darn good story to lose myself in, that's all I ask.


02-26-2007, 06:23 AM
I have one heck of a time reading as a writer, unless the book stinks. Then I'm looking at it from one step behind, nodding at all the parts that aren't working for me - the bland dialogue, the improbably plotting, the poor quality characterization or sentence structures.

But when I'm reading a book I enjoy - and one that I would love to some day be able to write - I'm too far lost in the story as a reader to come out as a writer and say "Oh, I see how he wove that, remarkable." or "This sentence structure is perfect, now I can understand how he brought that subplot element in so effortlessly."

I just can't. If I'm reading a book of the quality I hope to achieve, I'm simply too lost inside, and the reader in me is flying along, enjoying the whole thing. I'll even start out with the intention of studying the book to learn from it, and get lost and forget :)

02-26-2007, 10:40 PM
I just can't. If I'm reading a book of the quality I hope to achieve, I'm simply too lost inside, and the reader in me is flying along, enjoying the whole thing. I'll even start out with the intention of studying the book to learn from it, and get lost and forget :)

That's why I re-read great books -- the first time is for pleasure, the second for learning. Although there are times during a pleasure read where I just have to stop and re-read a passage a few times, it's so good.

Mud Dauber
03-01-2007, 03:01 AM
Well let me be in the minority here to say that I definitely read like a writer. I can't help it. I still enjoy the books and am able to get lost in the story (the good ones anyway) and pretty much read ONLY for entertainment, but the one thing my writer brain can't shut off is my 'wow, that was great' detector.

The OP asked specifics about whether we pay attention to structure, plot, pacing, or character development--none of which jumps out at me while I'm reading (unless the book is horrible, then I'll take notice), but if the story is written well, those things will be apparent after I've finished the book, so in that regard I read like a reader. However, the OP also asked about word choice, and that is what distracts me every time, making me aware that I am a writer reading a book.:crazy: I am forever in search of creative ways to describe things and can't help but notice when I come across something that I like. I've even gone so far as to stick a little post it page marker in it and come back to review the word choice again later.

Clear as mud, I know, but there's another answer for ya!

03-01-2007, 03:13 AM
Dauber, you make an interesting distinction in this business that I DO agree with, actually.

As evidenced by this thread, plenty of people read like writers, and plenty of people don't. Difference of opinion, no big whoop.

But I like that you mentioned that after reading like a reader, you then go back and review what y ou've read (mentally, I bet, you just think back on it) like a writer.

That's interesting, and I think that bit I do do, and do agree with doing. I think I do read like a reader, just losing myself in the text, but as I think back on the book, it's my writerly mind which is doing that.

03-01-2007, 03:31 AM
I only read like a writer when I critique. I look for everything that doesn't fit right and point it out from a dropped period to a major plot hole I look for it all. I also look for anything special to compliment on.

Doctor Shifty
03-01-2007, 11:26 AM
I sometimes find myself asking "How did he/she do that?" when I come across something very special, and in those times I go back and reread and reread until I've got it figured out.

Probably my most favourite author is William Golding, as his use of words can be so sparse and yet he can carry enormous energy of story deep into my mind. I often find myself going over and over a passage to "see how he did it". In one of his novels there is a child who gets murdered and he says absolutely nothing about it at all, it is hidden underneath the narrative. I had to go back about three chapters when I suddenly realised she was gone from the story. When I found where her death had been hidden I read that portion probably a dozen times as the terrible event slowly sank in. I often yearn to be able to write like that when I am reading his stuff.

The other "writery" thing that happens to me is when I am reading 'serious' humour, such as Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett's stuff, not slapstick. I can joke endlessly in some environments, such as with a bunch of mates or when my son and I get together. But I can't get 'funny' humour into my writing, it is always wry and ironic and sometimes a bit dangerous. It's as if when I am writing there is one part of my personality that overshadows another. I read people like Adams and Pratchett and ask the same question, "How is he doing this?" but underneath I am asking, "Why can't I get the funny side of me onto the page like this guy can?"

03-13-2007, 07:48 AM
I'm looking through old threads (actually, johnrobison's posts), and am reviving this one.

Something I read in Koontz' "How to write Best Selling Fiction" is to read a book twice, first for pleasure/as a reader, and the second time as a writer, to analyze it and see how the author did it. I've yet to do this. There are very few books I've read more than once, mainly Stand On Zanzibar, and that was because it's so convoluted (in a good way, actually) that I think it needs several readings (just as a reader).

I'm a pretty lazy reader. Always have been. Somebody in graduate school told me once to read a book and pay attention to the language, but I almost never do that.

What exactly does that mean? It's written in English, that's the language isn't it?

And while I'm at it, is there an online glossary of all these words writers use? What is "language" other than the obvious? I think I know what many/most of them are, such as headjumping (first person, changing between different characters' points of view), but there's "tone" that I knew what it was a month or two ago, but can't remember what it means now. I know what tone means on a radio, but that doesn't help me here.

03-13-2007, 07:57 AM
To me, when it comes to writing, the word "language" is an umbrella term. It means how the different aspects of language -- tone, word choice, syntax, structure, etc. -- are used.

As for tone, in a conversation, have you or anyone you know ever said, "It's not what you're saying, it's the way you're saying it"? That's tone. It's the difference between:

That dress looks nice on you.


That dress looks nice. On you.

03-13-2007, 05:44 PM
More and more, I find myself unable to switch off the writer-brain when I'm reading. I don't mind, though, because I feel that I'm growing with each book that I read. I actually enjoy pulling myself from a book and realizing, "Hey, wait, this is switching between third-limited and first depending on the character (Magic or Madness (http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Madness-Trilogy-Paperback/dp/1595140700/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/103-9794064-3831820?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1173793183&sr=1-1)), and I didn't even notice until I pulled myself out." Or "Damn, that was a good simile...really got the point across." It's the same part of my brain that can't see something without trying to describe it.

First, it makes me feel smarter than I used to be, because I used to NEVER notice that stuff. I'm a blond, we like things that make us feel smarter. ;)

Second, it gives me an excuse to read more...if I've been cuddled up on the couch all weekend with a book, I can always say, "Honey, it's work..."