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Reading Like a Reader v. Writer

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Steerpike, May 21, 2013.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    This is something I've mulled over numerous times, particularly when I read threads on POV, tense, transitions, and other technical aspects of writing.

    As writers we want to perfect those techniques (if there is any such thing as perfection versus preference in this context; I don't think there is, as such), and we spend a lot of time talking about things a reader isn't likely to consciously notice, and in many cases things a reader isn't going to care about if they do notice them. In other words, like someone working on a Ph.D. dissertation, we are hyperfocused on certain things at the expense of the big picture.

    I think a lot of this stems from the fact that many of us stop reading like readers. I know how it was when I first got into writing - suddenly I was reading everything like a writer, noticing all the peculiarities of style and technique, and so on. It took a while to get to the point of being able to switch 'write mode' on and off and to go back to reading like a reader.

    I think being able to read like a reader is a critical skill for writers.

    One thing you'll see on writing forums any time a very popular work is discussed is a lot of people talking about how bad the writing is because of X, Y, or Z. In many cases, the aspiring writer seems baffled by the success of the work given what they see as glaring deficiencies. I think this, too, stems from reading like a writer and forgetting how to read as a reader.

    It is necessary in developing the craft to be able to read critically as a writer, but it is not sufficient. In fact, if you can only do one or the other, I think you're much better off reading as a reader. This ties into technical writing versus storytelling. It is possible to be an extremely effective storyteller with mediocre writing (assessed from a purely technical perspective). It is possible to be a highly proficient writer from a technical standpoint, but to be a horrible storyteller.

    When it comes to engaging readers, a writer of mediocre technical ability but superior storytelling will garner more readers and outperform in the marketplace a writer of pristine technical ability who can't tell a story.

    A lot of what we discuss is miscellany, in many ways. It's interesting to talk about, as a writer, because we're digging down to the bones of the craft to see how it works. But I think sometimes we get far too bogged down in these details and lose sight of the reader experience.

    Choices like POV, tense, whether you have to just a double space when you switch viewpoints or use asterisks or start a new chapter, whether you can italicize internal monologue, and so on...all of these things and related aspects of writing are stylistic choices that you can either do well or do poorly, from the reader's point of view. If you're too heavily focused on "am I allowed to do X when making a transition" you've already missed the big picture.

    To me, when questions like the above arise, they can only be answered by looking at the work. The question isn't "Can I do X" because the answer to that question is always "you're damn right you can do it." The real question is "Did I do X effectively." And by 'effectively,' I'm talking about the reader experience, not the viewpoint of someone seeking to impose rules on your writing divorced of context (i.e. simply because they read those rules somewhere and decided they must always be true).

    If you can string sentences together well enough to make your meaning clear, you have enough writing ability to tell a fantastic story. There isn't a person on these forums who doesn't already have that skill. So, ultimately, everything you need to know about your work boils down to its effectiveness from the point of view of the reader. That's it. And the only way you're going to get the answer to that question is if you and those critiquing your work nurture the ability to step back and read as a reader. As someone there for the story, like we all were before we got bogged down in all of the technical questions of writing[SUP]1[/SUP].

    [SUP]1[/SUP] Yes, these things tie together, because your technique will impact the effectiveness from the reader perspective. But if you forget to step back and view things from the standpoint of a pure reader, a non-writer, you'll miss the entire context in which to judge technique.
  2. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    This seems like an arbitrary distinction. All my little tricks are things I noticed and liked in other people's stories (and I noticed those little things long before I was writing stories outside of school assignments.)
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I don't think so. I think for many people who want to write, it's a pretty clear-cut distinction. I know I can go between the two modes and it really changes how I write, and more than once I've seen people post on this forum and elsewhere that they find it harder to enjoy fiction because they can't turn off the writer/editor in their head. No one experience is universal, and the fact that you don't read in this manner, or can't understand the dichotomy that a lot of reader/writers experience, isn't sufficient basis to deem it arbitrary. The post is written for people who experience this issue, which won't be everyone of course.
  4. kayd_mon

    kayd_mon Sage

    There is a big distinction. I relate it to music, something that I do much better than write. Simple, fun music outsells clever, technically fantastic music every time. I listen to music and hear all the techniques, the subtleties, the interplay, the inspiration, the unique instruments... Regular people hear a song, and decide if they like it or not. Musicians debate gear, technique, etc. endlessly, but the average person doesn't notice or care. The same must go for writing.

    Some writers are more fun to read for other writers, just as some bands are better received by other musicians.
  5. Twook00

    Twook00 Sage

    I'd like to one day write like a reader. That is to say, I'd like to have the ability to write my stories while experiencing them as a reader does.

    Going back to music, this would be the equivalent of playing music by ear rather than learning the theory behind it. Or playing so much that muscle memory takes over and you no longer think about what finger goes where or how hard to pluck a string.

    Most of us aren't born with the ablity to just pick up an instrument and play. We have to practice, day in and day out. But if we do this consistently and often, eventually our fingers will get used to the chord shapes and our hands will move at just the right tempo until one day we pick up our instrument and just play.

    I guess this is why the number one writing advice is to simply write. Do it, every day, and it will become second nature.
    Last edited: May 21, 2013
  6. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    I suppose I follow your point in that the little tricks are just that--little tricks. You can't build a good story around them. But if you've got a good story, the tricks don't take away from that, and I think most readers enjoy at least some of them, even if they don't notice all of them. (And it would be a capital mistake to assume that popular fiction doesn't use the tricks, e.g. The Hunger Games's complex and multilayered metaphor of the mockingjay as both a symbol of rebellion and a creature that only repeats others' songs, or Twilight's extended discussion of the narrative role of the loser of a love triangle.)
    Jamber likes this.
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Well, not rather than, but in addition to. Though as I said above, if you're only going to do one or the other, you're better off approaching things as a reader. Ideally, you bring both to bear, and to do that you have to have the ability to switch between the two modes (or engage both at once, I suppose). My point isn't to forget about the technical aspects, but not to over-emphasize them to the point that you forget about the reader aspect.
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Yes. And this gets to the writer's goals. If you want to be first and foremost a "writer's writer," I suppose you could certainly do that. But even as a writer, I'm not going to read something done by other writers, whether technically proficient or not, unless it also somehow engages me as a reader. There are a lot of ways to do that, including emotionally, intellectual, or what have you. But it has to have something there besides pristine writing, or you could just have a machine put the words together :)
  9. Twook00

    Twook00 Sage

    Yes, very true. It's like a Venn Diagram. On one side you have Story (plot, character, arcs, mystery, concept, theme, etc.), on the other side is the medium in which it's told - in this case Writing (grammar, voice, exposition, style) - and in the middle is your novel or short story.

    It is the combination and execution of these two elements which makes a novel great.

    EDIT: Also, I see your point about not over-emphasizing the technical aspects. That's where I was going with the whole "practice every day until you can just play" thing. Eventually, you won't feel the need to over-analyze things. You won't constantly be asking whether A is the right thing or B. You'll just know.

    At least, I HOPE that's what happens.
    Last edited: May 21, 2013
  10. brokethepoint

    brokethepoint Troubadour

    I read as a reader, when I sit down to read I want to enjoy it.

    The one area where I semi look at it as a writer is the first chapter. I will look to see if they are following all the "rules" for how to start a novel. I find a large number of them really don't.

    If I want to look at the technical aspects of a writer I will do that later.

    In my writing if it is a choice between being all technical or a storyteller I will go with the storyteller.
  11. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    I've never liked "X or storytelling" contrasts, because to me storytelling is anything that makes the story work.

    But I'd say this kind of blinkered reading has to do with expectations, and not forgiving a book that doesn't use our Favorite Trick X but relies on Y instead-- or that may use X in a way we don't at all (so it really must be wrong). As serious writers, we do start having those expectations because we start caring about the tools we do best with, or want to do best, or just are used to seeing in other books we love.

    So "reading like a reader" might mean keeping an open mind for how many ways there are to make a story succeed. And "like a reader and then like a writer" would be allowing any trick to work, but learning from all of them.
  12. tlbodine

    tlbodine Troubadour

    I don't know that I've ever been able to read like a reader...mostly, I read like an English major ;) By which I mean that I pay more attention to theme, symbolism, philosophy etc. than the average person. I pay a lot of attention to the underlying structure in everything I read (and watch). It's all tied in together with storytelling, but it's sometimes quite frustrating as it can "ruin" a perfectly decent, fun book. Also it ruins the ending for me nearly every time. It's a very, very rare story that manages to surprise me -- by the time a plot twist comes up, it always seems inevitable.

    Learning to read in multiple different ways is SO helpful, and something I think we could all benefit from practicing.
  13. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Couldn't agree more Steerpike. Learning not to over emphasize the technical stuff is a lesson I know and have learned, but still on occasion, still slip into.

    I find that I either read as a reader or read like a writer. Trying to do both at the same time tends to confuse issues in my mind. Because when I make a judgement on a story issue, it's unclear whether I read that bit as a reader or a writer. To me it's best to know which mode you're in and stick with it for that section.

    I remember meeting this one person in a writing class whose had a vast vocabulary, perfect grammar, and a great imagination, but their stories were lukewarm. Tons of potential, but there was no engagement with the reader and reading their stuff felt like a chore. In that same class, another person, technically adequate, not really a writer, who took the class on a whim, wrote stuff that was completely engaging and fun to read. They just let fly with whatever and the honesty in that was captivating.

    One time I took an editing course... long story short, I showed people my first novel and to give them perspective I also showed them the crappy, fifteen-year old short story which the novel was based on. I wrote the short story before "I knew" how to write. One of the comments I got was my "more technically advanced" novel felt too polished, like I'd been working it over and over, which I had. They said my crappy short story was more honest and easy to connect with.
  14. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    When I think of reading like a reader, I think of reading passively, just to enjoy the darn thing. Then we learn a few rules about grammar and description and how to keep your writing tight, and we start to actively hunt these things down. Okay.

    But I think we can read actively, and look at the storytelling, and pick out the elements we want to work on and talk about. I don't think the key is to fall back into reading passively.

    For instance, the next time we read a book, we could keep a chapter-by-chapter chart on the POV's character arc. How is this character changing? What are this character's goals? What are this character's strengths and flaws? How is this character developing them? How does the conflict exploit them? Do it for a few books, and you should get an idea of how other writers are developing their characters.

    Storytelling doesn't have to be this thing you absorb naturally through massive amounts of reading, or else fail to. If you look for it, I believe you can actively learn it.
    Last edited: May 21, 2013
  15. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    In my opinion, the reason it's hard to turn off the writer inside our heads is because we are still learning to be the writers we'll eventually become. I'm not talking about the "Never stop learning" mentality. I'm saying that most of us on this forum are still on the steep, speedy upward slope of the learning curve. I'd certainly include myself in that category and it's easy to see by comparing chapter 1 in my current WIP to chapter 20. Even many of us who may feel rather accomplished, are more than likely still on that side of the curve whether we know it or not.

    Making an effort to put fundamentals & techniques into practice, experimenting with different styles or methods, these are the things that helps us grow quickly so it only makes sense we will notice and search them out during reading. Learning to write well takes a lot of focus & dedication. That level of focus will naturally continue during the reading of another's work.

    Perhaps, at a certain point this will change. I don't know. What I do know, is that for most reading, I find it difficult to turn off the inner writer during most reading. Further, I'm not sure I want to. I can still enjoy a story while reinforcing or altering my own beliefs on fundamentals & style. In some ways I feel that even during my reading alone, I'm progressing toward finding my unique author's voice.

    That being said, there are exceptions. Stories I really dig, swallow me whole. At the end of a chapter/book I may not be able to pinpoint what drew me in so effectively. If I have to go back and re-read, with a focus on analysis, that's damn good writing.
  16. KRHolbrook

    KRHolbrook Scribe

    I'm not sure if I read the OP's post correctly, so if not I apologize in advance.

    When it comes to writing something, we don't often read it as a reader outside of our brain would. We know (almost) everything that's going on, thus it's hard to step back and read it as another person who knows nothing. That's why it's best to get critiques from a person who has no idea what's happening until they read it. Someone might say "I don't understand why that amulet is so valuable," and the author says "It's because it's a family heirloom and has magical abilities..." with a duh kind of emphasis on their statement.

    I write and try to step back and read it as a reader would instead of a writer. It's difficult. I mull over each sentence and try to ask questions about it. Try to figure out what might not make sense to an outsider. I don't always catch the mishaps, which is why a critiquer's viewpoint is so valuable.

    When I pick up a book, I read as a reader. I may spot little bits here and there that stand out, but I'm not in critique-mode. When I see a chapter on a writing site like this, I can't read like a reader. My writing brain kicks into overdrive and I spot everything that makes me go huh?
  17. mayflower66

    mayflower66 New Member

    Whenever I'm reading a story, by default, I read like a reader. However sometimes, when I want to look at the style and technique of the author, I switch to my "reading like a writer" mode, which kind of takes away from the story. I'm not particularly good at reading as a writer, because I often catch myself getting drawn into the story and forgetting to study the way the author writes. I think being able to read like a writer, however, is a necessary tool for all writers because it helps us understand what kind of writing is needed to create a good book. Whenever I read as a writer, I tend to look at the dialogue because fantasy dialogue has always intrigued me, and I can't seem to get the hang of it. My dialogue always sounds awkward and forced, and so I study other authors writing whenever I have this issue. It's great to be able to read as writer, but if I had to choose between the two, I'd definately choose reading as a reader. Because when you focus on the technical points of a story rather than the actual story, you miss out on all the substance, and you may gain a few tips on how to write but sometimes it's not worth it.
  18. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    Before I became I writer, I only knew, when I read a book, whether I liked it or not. Now, I have a greater understanding of why I do or don't like something.

    When I reach the end, I stop to think about what I did or did not like about the story. I can evaluate how a passive protagonist or a weak plotline impacted my enjoyment.

    I am also much more able to judge the technical profeciency of the author by a quite simple method: If I read the book without noticing the writing, the writer did a darn good job of pulling me in. Each time I'm pulled out of the text by a mistake or clumsy prose, I try to note what caused the problem.

    I know the OP seems to think the readers shouldn't notice technical problems, but I submit that I always noticed; I just didn't know what the problem was. Head hopping, horrible dialogue, etc. always impacted my enjoyment. How could it not? Now, I know enough to identify the problem.
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  19. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    When I first set out on my abortive journey on the road to the ivory tower, my college mentor told me that studying literature had ruined her for reading books for pleasure, because now all she can do is lit crit. I think that that can apply to a certain extent towards us as writers. Granted, we are not engaging in literary criticism (thank the stars!), but we are entertainment writers, and when we read for pleasure we're immersing ourselves in our peer's work. It would be hard to not read as a writer if things are going wrong and the prose manages to throw us out of scene.
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    This is not an accurate reading of my post.

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