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The Zen of Reading Like a Writer

Read like a Writer quote - Francine ProseI’m starting to read like a writer, and it’s a bit scary.

Reading as a reader you let yourself fall into the book. You skip across the words, sink into the hero, live a life of danger, despair and domination (not that kind of domination). You let yourself be absorbed, enter a different world and just enjoy.

As a writer you see the structure of the story. You’re like Tank in the Matrix, watching rows of glowing, neon-green ASCII/Kanji flow down the screen and read out what’s going on. It’s exciting but it’s an experience from beyond. You’re no longer in the book, you’re looking at the nuts and bolts that make it up.

I’ve heard that you can transcend that, that you get to the point where seeing the nuts and bolts and yet you can still get immersed in the story. I hope that’s true, I don’t know. All I know is that I’m not there yet.

Why Destroy Your Love?

But why, knowing that it will change the experience of something you love, would anyone want to read like a writer?

Because you learn writing that way.

Learning a skill takes understanding of how it works. But that understanding doesn’t come from learning a tool, it comes from seeing that tool in action, trying it yourself, and essentially grokking it. You need to both see the bolts and see the ship they hold together at the same time. The first step towards that is seeing the ship. The second is seeing the bolts. Knowing where the bolts go makes placing them yourself so much easier.

So how do you learn to read like a writer?

“Read Critically” Ain’t It

That was the hardest part for me. Read critically, people said. What does that even mean? Oh, this story sucks? I had no idea. So I decided to toss the whole “read like a writer” thing overboard and plain forget it.

It came to me on it’s own.

I realized that I was able to write neat sentences but I didn’t have the necessary grasp of plot and structure. My stories weren’t turning out as good as I’d want them to.

So I started reading up on plot. I read pretty much every book on plot I could lay my hands on, every blog, every forum post. And nothing. It didn’t click at all, just lots of random facts floating around in my mind. What I needed was a mental shark.

That shark came when I stumbled across yet another post on Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient. I started thinking about stories I’d read and trying to figure out what type of MICE framework they used. And I failed. I’d fumble about, coming up with arguments for and against why a story was Milieu or Character oriented. I grew frustrated. But something was happening.

I was practicing. I was practicing reading like a writer.

The Two Basics

That’s what it means to read like a writer, to consider stories you like and trying to apply the tools you know on them. All that talk about reading critically isn’t worth squat if you don’t know what you’re seeing.

So, in order to read like a writer you need two things:

  1. You need to know and have a basic understanding of the writer’s toolbox.
  2. You need to practice applying your writer’s tools to the story you’re reading.

Simple as that, and I was making headway. I started seeing the patterns behind the words, the tools the writer had used. Consciously, subconsciously, I don’t know. I don’t even know if the tools I were using to decode the patterns in the stories I read were the same the writers had used to write it. In fact I highly doubt it. There’s so much freedom to writing that you can apply pretty much any tool you want to it, including plain, blind luck. But that isn’t important.

What is important is that I was practicing to write while reading. That’s what reading like a writer is: you learning by walking side-by-side with your favorite writer, holding their hand while they take you through their process.

Connect the Dots

Yes, you’re seeing their finished manuscript. That’s a lot of polish your first draft isn’t going to have. But you’re spotting the ways that you can connect the dots, the ways to build a great tale.

That’s the single best tool I’ve managed to find: reading like a writer is about practicing what you know on a perfect result. You’re doing pirouettes with the ice princess. You’re following in the footsteps of giants, putting your feet where they put theirs and learning, in your creative center, how you can write. Not how you should write, but how you can write. You’re opening your eyes to new possibilities.

That’s a powerful tool indeed.

Dreams of Futures Past Book Cover


  • Perhaps I’m an oddball, but I don’t really notice structure when reading as a writer. For me it’s more about noticing the use of language and appreciating the prose, paying attention to characterisation etc. Reading as a writer doesn’t get in the way of enjoying a really good book, but it does slow my reading a little.

    • Filip Wiltgren

      I’ve noticed the same thing, that I read slower now than before. And I pause more often to consider stuff I didn’t think about before.

      Still, it’s harder to read for analysis than to read for pleasure, so that’s got to be a good sign 🙂

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