I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: writers read. Adjust accordingly. But what does it really mean to read like a writer? What do we do differently as writers browsing pages?
To answer these questions, I’d like to share an excerpt with you from Welcome To The Writer’s Life (selected as one of Poets & Writers’ Best Books for Writers) by Paulette Perhach.
I had the pleasure of meeting Paulette at AWP this year and am very much enjoying her book.
Paulette Perhach is a writing coach and author. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Elle, Marie Claire, Slate, Yoga Journal, and Vice. She’s most widely known for her viral essay “A Story of a Fuck Off Fund.” She offers a free year of daily writing prompts at her site welcometothewriterslife.com.
Here’s what she had to say about reading like a writer*:
You’ll read differently now. From here on out, you’ll be studying.
I felt reluctant to write in my books for years, but once I started the practice, I understood its worth. Unless you get a book from the library (a fine way to save money), I recommend getting your pencil out.
You can also annotate in e-books, but I’m an old-fashioned gal when it comes to paper. I like making a book mine by charting my experience with it. I like to judge past readers of the used books I buy based on what they highlighted too.
Use your pencil to dissect, hunt for bits you can steal later, and look for lessons. When you mark something, you almost instinctively read it over again, cementing whatever it has to teach you.
If you don’t quite get how or why to mark up your books, try this system.
Underline what you love:
- Perfect diction. A word so on point that it causes you to make a noise.
- Stunning sentences. The kind of sentences that make you want to learn how to do that. Consider copying them into your Writer’s Mission Control Center too.
- Character. Vivid physical details, backgrounds, gestures — anything that brings a person alive on the page for you.
- Setting. Visuals, smells, textures, music, or anything that builds the scene in your mind.
Mark what you can study:
- The feels. Learn to recognize when a book causes an emotional reaction in your body, either fear, joy, excitement, or anger. Write whatever you’re feeling in the margins, and look at the style, content, and sentence structure to consider how the author is manipulating your insides with these words.
- Laughter. If an author makes you laugh, mark that with your laughter words of choice in the margins. I’m a ha! person, but I know and respect LOLers. Consider what kind of joke it is, perhaps writing underneath it whether it’s hyperbole, self-deprecation, understatement, etc.
- Questions. If you don’t understand why a writer did something, put a question mark next to it. You may come to understand it later.
- Rule breaking. When a writer breaks the rules, mark it. Then think about why they made that choice for the piece.
Note what you don’t understand so that you can look it up later:
- Words you don’t know yet. Draw a squiggly line under new vocabulary. Or say, “Siri / Alexa / robot of your choice, what does _ mean?”
- Allusions. If you see a reference to another literary work, writer, or event you’re not familiar with, draw that same squiggly line. This often leads to your next read or a trip down a rabbit hole on Wikipedia.
- Star. A paragraph that says something you never realized you’ve always wanted to say. A page that brings tears to your eyes. A chapter ending that leaves you physically incapable of putting the book down. Put a big star next to it to chart where you fell in love with the craft a little more. Then read that part again.
* Copyright 2018 by Paulette Perhach. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Welcome to the Writer’s Life by permission of Sasquatch Books.