Reading Like a Writer

“What book are you teaching right now?”

Me: “[Enter title here.]”

“Do you like it?”

Me: “It’s not my favorite, but since I’ve spent so much time teaching it, I can appreciate it.”

During my time as a teacher, conversations like the one above occurred fairly often. But I hadn’t given it much thought lately until this week, when the memory resurfaced. I was reading a bestselling novel, one that had won many awards. I hadn’t finished it yet, but for whatever reason, I decided to look up the reader reviews. Not surprisingly, most of them gave a high rating. Not surprisingly, several gave an extremely low rating. I’m not sure why, but I clicked on the lowest of the low reviews and read them.

The reasons that the readers gave for ranking the book so low varied from punctuation taste and genre preference to a disappointment in the murderer choice. (Rats! There was no spoiler alert.) I’m sure the glowing reviews gave reasons that were just as varied. Maybe I’ll go back and read them now, since I’m safe from reading more spoilers. But it reminded me of my conversations about the books I once taught. “I don’t like it” and “it’s not a good book” do not always apply to the same work.

I then realized that I’ve internalized this as a writer as well. Now having written some books of my own, I read books differently than I used t0. (There are pros and cons to this. Perhaps a topic for another day.) I don’t always pay attention to whether or not I enjoy everything about the book as much as I pay attention to other factors of the writing.

What do I mean? Well, maybe the easiest way to describe my point is to give you examples. Here are some questions I ask myself when reading. I encourage you to consider a few of these the next time you’re reading a book, even if—especially if?—it’s one you don’t like very much.

  • What do I notice about the word choices? Are there turns of phrase that gave me pause? Do I know anyone who sounds like this when he or she tells a story?
  • Is the pace and tone consistent throughout the book? If not, do I think it was intentional? If so, what is the author trying to do with this change?
  • What is one thing I can really appreciate about this book? What is one thing I really dislike?
  • Is this a genre I read often? If so, how does it compare to others I’ve read? If not, what is it about the genre I do or don’t like?
  • If I were in this story, what would I be doing? How would I affect the plot?
  • Did this book make me uncomfortable? Why?
  • Am I assuming the narrator and the author have similar points of view? What clues in the book might prove me right or wrong?
  • What worldview does the main character/narrator/author likely have? Do I know people like this?
  • If I could sit down with the author, what is one kind thing I can say about this book? Is there anything I’d like to convince him or her?
  • This author can ______________ much better than I can.
  • Something valuable I learned from this book would be: ______________.
  • Did this book surprise me in any way? Did I like the surprise? In the end, was the surprise a good choice for the book?
  • Similarly, is this what I expected out of this novel? If not, is that a bad thing?

There are countless more possibilities, but these might inspire you to consider even more. Do you have questions you ask yourself when reading? I’d love to know what they are!