Read the Way You Write: Classify It, Deconstruct It, Play with It

Writersdontcry Writing and Reading JournalsGreat writing is often borne of an almost absurd level of appreciation and dedication to reading. It takes a special kind of reader—one with incredible patience—to take the time to savor what she reads and to figure out how she herself could create something similarly beautiful.  

But, paradoxically, the more we write, the less we tend to read. I mean, I suppose it does kind of make sense. Whole evenings regularly and easily disappear in the pursuit of reading—and writing takes loads of practice and hard work. Which makes for two incredibly time-consuming passions, both likely already outside of the money-making and romatic parts of ones life. Sacrificing reading for the pursuit of writing, though, I feel is a mistake, as it can lead us to lose touch with that which inspired us in the first place.

Of course, it is good to want to work on your writing, and it’s perfectly normal to want to spend every waking moment getting better at it. And sure, reading can feel a bit frivolous when compared to that necessary hard work. But reading is not procrastinating, even if it is fun (and I sure hope you think it is!): it is an important part of maintaining and honing your skills, staying inspired, and keeping in touch with why you write. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that being an appreciative and reflective reader is one of the best ways to work on your writing. After all, where did you learn most of your skills: from a classroom, on the internet, or from thoughtfully reading great books?

To take the best advantage of your reading for your writing, I recommend keeping a reading journal. In it, you can keep track of what you like, play with particular paragraphs to figure out how they work, and experiment with the styles and ideas you read about to improve your own writing. Here are a few ideas for how to start a reading journal of your own:

Keep Your Favorites

Whenever you run across a line you love, no matter what it’s from--be it movie trailer, song, or fantasy epic—write it down in your journal, along with where it’s from and the date you read it. Do the same for paragraphs you love, and even whole scenes. Yes, it is time consuming to write these things down—legibly, anyway—by hand. But think of it as a valentine to the author. By taking the time to express your appreciation in this way, you allow more of your brain to work the words over, to figure out what makes them so resonant. And, as a bonus, you end up with a fascinating record of your favorites over time—as well as a source for inspiration, and a way to revisit the best parts of your library whenever you want to.


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Comments (6)

It's a very compelling idea. The more I write, the more I find myself deconstructing and editing books as I read them, but I never thought about writing all that down.

Posted by: Jon | Tuesday October 16, 2012 at 1:14 PM

Heh, fair point! I suppose I should have said dissect or simplify, but that was the first term that came to mind to describe the process! :)

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Monday October 15, 2012 at 8:36 AM

Great stuff!

But, as an academic, "deconstruct" means something very, very, veeeery different to me. ;)

Posted by: Stewart | Friday October 12, 2012 at 9:23 PM

Brom: You're welcome! And you're right--you should definitely do whatever works for you :). For me personally, if I read something really good, I often want to stop reading for a bit, to savor the taste of it for a while longer--drawing it out. So I usually write it down right then. But I've also gone back and picked out paragraphs and sentences I find particularly memorable after finishing the book, for sure!

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Monday October 8, 2012 at 5:50 PM

Susan, thanks for this idea. I've heard many times that it's a good idea for aspiring writers to read good books, but I've never heard of a reading journal. I have one question: do you find it easier to stop right when you get to a passage you like and write it down right away, or does it work to just mark it and come back to it later? I'm imagining myself reading and not wanting to stop to make notes - got to find out what happens next! I suppose the answer is to do whatever works, but I'm curious about your experience.

Posted by: Brom | Monday October 8, 2012 at 2:30 PM

Will there be a media monday or old media monday column this week. I've been missing them for a while. Have they been retired? If so, why?

Posted by: scott baxter | Monday October 8, 2012 at 10:52 AM

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