Reading as a Writer
chapter 9, pp91-95
To get the most benefit from ... reading ... you must take a little trouble to learn to read as a writer. Anyone who is at all interested in authorship has some sense of every book as a specimen, and not merely as a means of amusement. But to read effectively it is necessary to learn to consider a book in the light of what it can teach you about the improvement of your own work.
Most would-be writers are bookworms, and many of them are fanatical about books and libraries. But there is often a deep distaste at the idea of dissecting a book, or reading it solely for style, or for construction, or to see how its author has handled his problems. Some feeling that one will never again get the bewitched, fascinated interest from any volume that one got as an uncritical but appreciative reader makes many a student-writer protest at the idea of putting his favourite authors under a microscope. As a matter of fact, when you have learned to read critically you will find that your pleasure is far deeper than it was when you read as an amateur; even a bad book becomes tolerable when you are engaged in probing it for the reasons for its stiff, unnatural effects.
At first you will find that only the only way to read as a writer is to go over everything twice. Read the story, article, or novel to be studied rapidly and uncritically, as you did in the days when you had no responsibility to a book but to enjoy it. When you have finished put it aside for a while, and take up a pencil and scratch pad.
Summary Judgement and Detailed Analysis
First make a short written synopsis of what you have just read. Now pass a kind of summary judgement on it: you liked it, or didn't like it. You believed it, or were left incredulous. You liked part of it, and disliked the rest. (You may, if you like later, pass a moral judgement on it too, but now confine your decisions to what you believe were the author's intentions, as far as you are able to discern them.)
Go on to enlarge on these flat statements. If you liked it, why did you? Don't be discouraged if your answer to this is vague at first. You are going to read the book again, and will have another chance to see whether you can find the source of your response. If part of it seemed good to you and the rest weak, see whether you are able to tell when the author lost your assent. Were the characters drawn with uniform skill, badly drawn, or inconsistent only occasionally? Do you know why you felt this? Do any of the scenes stand out in your mind? Because they were well done, or because an opportunity was so stupidly missed? Remember any passage which arrested your attention for any reason. Is the dialogue natural, or, if stylized, is the formality purposeful or a sign of the author's limitations?
By this time you know some of your own weaknesses. How does the author you have just read handle situations which would be difficult for you?
The Second Reading
If it is a good book your list of questions should be long and searching, your answers particularized as much as possible. If it is not especially good it will be enough, at first, to find the weak spots in it and lay it aside. When you have made your synopsis and answered your own questions as far as possible, make a check against those you were not able to answer fully, or that seem to promise more enlightenment if you pursue them. Now start at the first word again, reading slowly and thoroughly, noting down your answers as they become plain to you. If you find any passage particularly well done, and especially if the author has used adroitly material which would be hard for you to handle, mark them. Later you can return to them and use them as models after ffurther analysis.
You know now how the story ends; be on the watch for clues to that ending which come early in the book or story. Where was the character trait that brings about the major complication first mentioned? Was it brought in smoothly and subtly, or lugged in by the ears? Do you find, on second reading, that there are false clues -- passages which do not make the book more real, or which distort the author's intention, but which have been allowed to pass although they introduce an unnecessary element or actually mislead the reader? Go over such passages carefully, to make sure that you are not missing the author's full meaning, and be sure that you are right before the concluding that the author was at fault.
Points of Importance
There is no end to the amount of stimulation and help you can get from reading with ritual attention. Read with every faculty alert. Notice the rhythm of the book, and whether it is accelerated or slowed when the author wishes to be emphatic. Look for mannerisms and favourite words and decide for yourself whether they are worth trying for practice or whether they are too plainly the author's own to reward you for learning their structure. How does he get the characters from one scene to another, or mark the passing of time? Does he alter his vocabulary and emphasis when he centers his attention first on one character and then on another? Does he seem to be omniscient, is he telling only what would be apparent to one character and allowing the story to dawn on the reader by following that character's enlightenment? Or does he write first from the viewpoint of one and then another, and then a third? How does he get contrast? Is it, for instance, by placing character against setting incongruously -- as Mark Twain put his Connecticut Yankee down into the world of King Arthur's day?
Each writer will ask his own questions and finds his own suggestive points. After the first few books -- which you must read twice if you are to make good use of the work of others -- you will find that you can read for enjoyment and for criticism simultaneously, reserving a second reading only for those pages where the author has been at his best or worst.
(cross-posted to heathwitch and discuss_writing)