My passion for all things literary sprang from a love affair with reading and grew up to embrace a love of writing. Today, I am at least as much a reader as I am a writer. I read for pleasure, but I also read to learn. There is no better classroom for the writer than the pages of a well-written story. By reading like a writer, we can learn the magic of our craft by example.
Each week, the teacher of the Grub Street class I attended this summer invited her students to bring a “perfect sentence” to share with the class. At first, the exercise seemed like a bit of fluff; but as I combed through favorite books for particularly striking lines, I came to see the value in it. Consciously being on the lookout for sentences that made my writer’s heart sing inspired me to read more carefully, more consciously. Reading was still the most exquisite form of escape and entertainment, but now it had another layer of enjoyment – the study of what makes good writing.
In some ways, a story is like a tree.
We look upon a tree and appreciate its beauty, the sound of the wind in its leaves, the shade it provides on a sultry day. We are thankful for the fruit it bears, for the strength of the boughs that hold up a swing. We perceive the tree as a singular entity, a whole. But, if we look more closely, we begin to see that there are many pieces to the tree. There are the roots that dig deep, down into the earth and spread out underground like thousands of curious fingers. There is an intricate and elegant system of channels within the tree – carrying nutrients and water and sap. There are the leaves, with their alchemy of photosynthesis. There are blossoms and fruit – blooming and ripening, evolving one into the other before our eyes. There are seasonal changes – the budding of spring, bursting of summer, harvesting of fall, and dormancy of winter.
Suddenly, the tree is no longer just a tree. It is a vast collection of individual pieces and parts that are connected into an organic harmony via a complex ecosystem. We can see, as if we have X-ray vision, all the inner workings – how the leaves rely on the roots and how the roots must have good soil. We know what makes the leaves whisper in the wind and why they change color in the fall. We understand each of the tree’s parts in the context of the whole.
Reading like a writer gives you similar insights into the nature of story.
You become aware of the shape of each “leaf,” see the roots that hold the story up, and understand how all the pieces – character, plot, conflict, language, and so on – come together to create a single, cohesive experience that carries the reader away.
Although I still love to get lost in a good story, I now read with two minds. On the one hand, I am simply a girl going on adventure in the pages of a book. On the other hand, I am a writer, studying the inner workings of good writing –dissecting author’s choices and execution. I pay attention to characterization, setting, plot, and theme. I notice and appreciate particular touches of scene construction, voice, and dialog. Learning by example brings me a whole new level of understanding that sticks with me when I sit down to write. In fact, I may start keeping a writer’s journal of examples to help inspire me when I get stuck.
How about you? Do you read with a writer’s eye? Do you keep a collection of favorite sentences, characters, examples of scene setting? Do you think reading makes you a better writer?
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.
Image Credit: José Manuel Ríos Valiente