Reading Like A Writer

When planning to teach the Creative Writing A-level for the first time, I was pleased to see the emphasis placed on students reading. One of the units was actually called ‘From Reading to Writing’, and the in-depth commentaries students had to submit with their creative pieces required them to be able to make precise and perceptive links between pieces they had read and their own creations. I found guiding their independent reading one of the most challenging and enjoyable aspects of my job; whilst school English lessons and A-level Literature lessons required almost exclusively sticking to set texts, as a Creative Writing teacher I could recommend almost anything I thought the student might find inspiring or useful. (The result of this, by the way, and one clearly not understood by the idiots at the DfE/QCA who pulled the plug on this qualification after less than five years, was that students ended up reading both extensively and intensively, frequently taking on really challenging works they would not have otherwise read – the lists of works cited in their commentaries ranged from Kate Tempest to T S Eliot, Alan Ball, Ken Kesey, Shakespeare, Raymond Chandler, Jack Kerouac, Sarah Waters, Hemingway, Dickens, and many others.)
In the second year, each student was specialising in one form (poetry, prose fiction, non-fiction or script) and so in order for whole-class lessons to work, we all had to learn to make interesting connections between forms. A prose writer might learn about efficient scene-setting from studying the opening to a screenplay; a script-writer might learn about imagery from a poet. I managed to create a textbook around writing techniques such as characterisation, setting, imagery and dialogue, which incorporated all four forms into each section, allowing plenty of cross-fertilisation of ideas.

When researching this, I of course came across Francine Prose’s well-known book Reading Like a Writer. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the art of writing. She takes you through aspects of writing, from the sentence level upwards, illustrating her points with references to a wide variety of texts. David Lodge’s classic The Art of Fiction does something very similar with extracts from well-known literature followed by essays on the techniques used. These books show how reading can stimulate a writer’s ideas about form structure, character and theme as well as smaller details of technique, and raise our awareness of what we are doing when we read as well as when we write.

I like the analogy of reading for pleasure as being like wandering round a cathedral for the sheer joy of the architecture, whilst reading for a literature lesson is more like visiting it to prepare for a test on the history of the building, and reading like a writer is like an architect studying the building to learn their trade. The downside of this analogy is that it implies there is less pleasure in the latter two visits, which I don’t find is necessarily true. If the cathedral is beautiful enough (and most of them are!), the joy will not be diminished by having a secondary purpose for visiting. But it is definitely worth thinking about why writers need to read first, and how they need to read.

Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to reading and note-taking, of course. Never a one for annotating hard copies of books, I have become quite a fan of the sticky index tab to mark pages I want to come back to, and I do highlight passages on my Kindle, but most of my notes go into my writing journal rather than the book itself, because I want to be able to combine them and make links between them when I am looking for inspiration. I try to update my journal with reading notes fairly often even if I’m not in a very productive phase for writing, because I know all too well just how much I will forget if I don’t write it down. Even secondary sources such as writers being interviewed on Front Row or Book Club on Radio 4 can be the spark that sets off a creative firework, or a different chemical in the mix that creates new colours in the explosion. A writer can no more function without being a reader than an architect could build a house without seeing one.

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