In How to Get Happily Published, Judith Applebaum says, "[good writers] are apt to go through several books and magazines a month and pick up pointers on style, organization, point of view and the like…." The how-to of gleaning those pointers is the subject of Francine Prose's acclaimed text, Reading Like a Writer. Following her guidance, you can expect to achieve writing excellence. It sounds good, except she advises that you immediately read more than 100 titles. Unfortunately, at the "close reading" (therefore, s-l-o-w) pace she recommends, the glaciers would melt before you digested half the list.
To read like a writer makes sense, but if time constraints prevent your analyzing a library of classics, consider reading like a writer – on the run.
First, assemble study materials – an assortment of used books, magazines, and newspapers. Used? Yes, and cheap, so you'll feel free to mark pages with abandon. Next, choose any book, and pull it apart into sections, or tear an article or two from a publication. Fold the pages to purse or pocket size, and you're ready to turn spare moments into writing lessons. As time avails, read, all the while marking words and passages that reinforce past learning, or teach you something new.
- Circle strong verbs, and unfamiliar words, as well as particularly descriptive words or phrases.
- Print "R"in the margin beside passages that indicate the author researched the subject, or conversely, "R?" where you question material presented as fact.
- In nonfiction articles, notice quotations and their purpose. For example, does the author use a quotation to reinforce a stated opinion? Write "Q" beside all passages that contain quoted material, both direct and indirect. Hopefully, you'll find time to analyze them later.
- Similarly, put an "A" beside each anecdote. Notice how the author leads into it. Like quotations, anecdotes can be used for a variety of functions. For example, one anecdote may support the author's point of view and/or work as a transitional paragraph, while another is simply included for interest.
- To study mechanics, highlight all punctuation marks on page. Do you agree with how they were used?
- Beef up your spelling. Redline words that represent your spelling demons.For example, are you troubled by the suffixes -er and -or? If hyphenation gives you grief, observe words formed with prefixes. In no time you'll imbibe the correct spelling of nouns like afterthought compared to compound adjectives, as in the phrase "after-dinner speech."
- Examine dialogue, underlining each character's words in a separate color. How does the author create different voices?
- Put a smiley face by smooth transitions between paragraphs, end of chapter zingers, an author's segues from the present to background material and back to the present, and so forth.
- Ask yourself questions, and scribble brief answers. What held your interest… or lost it? In How to Get Happily Published, Judith Applebaum says "writers often stop to examine each powerful passage…to figure out how it achieved its impact." She suggests three techniques to watch for: "a succession of startling images, a change of tense, a panoply of facts."
After you've squeezed all the good you can from one piece, file it and select another. When you read with purpose, you can turn poems or prose – from lengthy novels to brief advertisements – into teaching tools. It's simply a matter of observation, curiosity about writing technique, and a desire to improve your own work.
(c) 2013, Bernice W. Simpson