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How to become a better reader (video)


Viewing time: 4 minutes 29 seconds

The Write Question is a weekly writing video podcast I started in 2017 and ran more or less weekly until April 2022. This is a repost of #24 on how to become a better reader. The message was first published on July 14/17.


Welcome to The Write Question, a video podcast designed to answer your questions about writing. I’m Daphne Gray-Grant.

Today I’m answering a question from Joan Rush, a retired lawyer working on her first novel in Vancouver, British Columbia. Here is her question.

[recording] I read a lot of new books and re-read books I really like to use as writing guides. You suggested we use writing we like to see if we can follow the author’s style. My problem seems to be that I get too deep into the stories I’m reading and get lost in understanding the writing style. I know that sounds silly even as I write it, but it’s true. You’d think I could separate one from the other, but I find it very difficult. I spent about an hour re-reading the book (and getting lost in the story again) today and couldn’t seem to figure out what to really take away from the author’s style. Are other people having this problem? Is there a way around this?

Thanks for the great question, Joan. Before I answer, let me make one observation. Many people don’t ask questions about things they really care about because they’re afraid the question will sound too stupid. I refuse to believe there is such a thing as a stupid question. And what you asked me today really gets to the heart of the important question: How to become a better reader?

Many people read for the plot — and I think you touch on this when you describe being “engaged in the story” of a book you like. Others read for figurative language. I know I particularly like Nicholson Baker’s work for his metaphors and similes. I also like how he can take a subtle plot like in his book Mezzanine — about someone who rides an escalator — and turn it into a whole novel.

But read a book to enjoy this quite different from reading a book to learn from him.

If you want to start learning from what you read, I want to suggest a book. It is called Reading as a writer and this is Francine Prose. The perfect last name for a writer. Prose explains that we should study the works of famous authors such as Austen, Chekhov, and Roth. She goes into detail about the techniques these writers use and gives us some pointers on what we can learn from them. Most of all, she suggests that we should SLOW down our reading speed dramatically and spend more time paying attention to individual words and sentences.

Now I know that most of the authors mentioned by Prose these are what I would call “old believers”. I think they still have lessons for us today, but I also understand that you might want more modern input. So here’s what I suggest:

I think you should start copying authors you really admire. And by copy I mean word for word. You can copy with a pen if you want, or with a computer. But copying is the best way I know to really absorb another writer’s rhythm, vocabulary, and style. When I copy, I do it for no more than five minutes at a time and I try to do it every day. I’ve included a link to my column about it in the description below.

Over the years I have used books that blog posts, New York Times writings and journal articles. It doesn’t matter what you copy as long as you think it is well written and the work offers something you would like to emulate.

Then, when you finish copying the artwork (do it a section if you are copying a book) then read it again. You will learn something new, because after copying, you will understand the writing in a completely different way. This is the same principle that artists use when learning to create visual art.

I have been writing for over 33 years and I’m still copying and still learning from it.

finally in case you’re the least bit concerned about being caught as a plagiarist, let me close with a quote from Pablo Picasso: “Good artists copy, great artists steal. »

Thanks for your question, Joan. Good luck in becoming a better reader so you can learn from other great writers.


Reading as a reader Francine Prose

Mezzanine Nicholson Baker

Why you should be a copycat

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