You know how art students are forever hanging around museums with their sketch pads, copying paintings? My bet is you haven’t spent a lot of time wondering why they do it, because it just makes intuitive sense. To understand how the artist placed a line, created a sense of space, got those proportions right—it surely helps to walk a mile with his pencil.
So why doesn’t it occur to aspiring writers to copy text?
Actually, I have heard of the concept, odd as it may seem: somewhere I remember reading about a writer who taught himself the trade by copying out literature he liked. And of course it’s out of fashion now, but a few generations ago schoolchildren were regularly put to work memorizing poetry.
Still, copying out well-written prose probably seems like a bizarre exercise to most of us. I’ve never done it myself. Nonetheless, if we’re not going to literally sit down and copy something, we can still find ways to bring the same kind of attention to work we admire—or even work we don’t. You read things differently when you read them like a writer. But it takes some practice.
Maybe you’ve heard of lucid dreaming (also called “conscious dreaming”). It’s the dream state most of us experience on occasion, when, while still asleep, we become aware we’re dreaming. Often it happens in the last moments before we awaken, or just as we’re falling asleep, and it happens without us trying. But it turns out that for centuries people have tried to consciously induce lucid dreaming, for all kinds of reasons. Some have used it as a way to control the direction of their dreams. Today one of its uses is to help people who suffer from nightmares. (Go ahead, google it. You’ll find dozens of websites, seminars, and products claiming to hold the secret to producing lucid dreams.)
Reading like a writer is like lucid dreaming. Even as you immerse yourself in the text, you maintain a smidgeon of awareness at another level, paying enough attention to consider why the author did what she did in the way she did it.
When you read an article that pulls you through from one paragraph to another, creating curiosity and suspense, you stop to consider what it is about the writing that creates these responses. When you find a word that surprises you, you stop to think about why it is surprising, how it is more typically used, and whether it works in this new context.
Sometimes I bring my writer-consciousness to bear even when nothing in particular has caught my attention. If I’m reading the narration of an event, I stop to think about how the author got from Point A to Point B. What details did he include? What did he leave to my imagination—and did that work? How did he use quotes (if nonficition) or dialogue (if fiction) to advance the narrative?
Reading like a writer is most pleasant when you’re reading something that’s well-written (well, reading is most pleasant when you’re reading something that’s well-written) but it can be just as useful when you’re reading something that’s not. If I have trouble understanding something, I try to fight the immediate assumption that the problem lies with my inadequate brain, lack of sleep or rapidly declining attention span, and instead consider what about the writing is making it so difficult to grasp.
Similarly, if I’m finding something boring, I stop to consider what has made it that way. Sometimes, of course, it’s simply a topic that doesn’t interest me. But I’ve noticed that in the hands of a really good writer almost any topic can become interesting.
Another kind of bad writing, which I think is unique to fiction, is when the writer inserts herself too strenuously into the narration. This often happens in stories that take place in other times or unfamiliar (or imaginary) locales, when the writer tips over some invisible line from providing necessary background into creating a dumping ground for her research notes. Although I don’t write fiction, I still find it fascinating to try to figure out where this invisible line lies—how much does the writer need to say and how much should be left to the intelligence and imagination of the reader? Surely understanding this helps me write better informational prose.
You might wonder if taking this approach spoils the pleasure of a good read, but I’ve found that not to be the case—it only enriches it, letting you more consciously savor the experience. So if you’re not already taking your mental sketchpad out every time you open a newspaper or power up your Nook, give it a try!
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