Reading for writing: new blog post series

In my post about how to join a writing group I said I was passionate about the advice to writers to read.

And I am. Reading is essential to writing (and to life, I’d argue) because it tells us both what to do and what not to do as writers (and as humans).

Reading for a specific purpose

But here’s the thing, that advice is useless if you don’t know how to read for a specific purpose. Most people do know how to do this to some extent: you can read instructions to figure out how to do something, you can read for pure enjoyment, you can read to give feedback on someone’s writing. But how do you read to inform your own writing exactly? How do you work out what a writer is doing that makes that piece of writing so resonant, so important, so touching and real and astounding and every other thing we feel when we read? Reading for your own writing is not a skill you find taught much, although the advice ‘to read’ is given freely and widely.

This frustrates me. My job-that-pays-the-bills is to teach people how to read closely and with purpose. Granted, they are teenagers who don’t much appreciate my efforts (some do, some times) but it means I have spent years thinking about how and why we read. And how to be engaging when teaching this.

And I’m pretty keen to help others to develop or rediscover these skills (since it is highly likely you once sat in and English classroom learning how to read in order to write).

Why listen to me?

It goes without saying that I am far from the first person to think about this stuff in detail. Harold Bloom taught me that reading is more than running your eyes over the page, that I could think about reading as I thought about writing. Francine Prose’s brilliant book, Reading Like a Writer, is worth lingering over. And poet and essayist Mark Tredinnick has a range of handbooks on writing that use close reading to instruct.  I’m not a university lecturer or have a PhD in literature, but I do think about this stuff all the time. And I think having to teach it to reluctant teenagers in a way that means we don’t all want to kill each other is a qualification worth mentioning.

Reading for writing

There are many ways we can use reading to instruct our writing.

For example, the other night I wrote a note for myself after watching an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale in which a particularly brilliant use of switching POV informed the tension of June’s world. It occurred to me that I could use this device in my work.

I am currently teaching Tennessee Williams and am soaking up everything about subtext to use in my writing. Even better is the instruction on dialogue and character voice. And re-reading the novel Hatchet with my Year 8s is helping me write a novel with, effectively, one character.

But most writers aren’t high school English and literature teachers. And many haven’t sat in classrooms or lecture theatres being instructed on reading for years, if ever. And, I’ve realised, that if you do not do this close reading thing regularly you can miss all the wisdom on the page in front of you, especially if you are in the hands of a skilful author who is so brilliantly unspooling their story that you cannot help but be caught up in it (oh, and how glorious is that!).

If you agree with me, you are probably thinking of an example in which you realised something you read helped your writing. I know you are capable of doing this yourself, but do you? Is that ‘reading-as-a-writer’ brain switched on every time it needs to be? If it isn’t, if you think you aren’t getting as much out of your reading as you could, then this series of posts is for you.

And, if you have something particular you’d like me to cover in these posts, please pipe up!

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