February 2, 2010

How To Read Like A Writer

Writing well often depends on reading well, which means studying a poem or manuscript that you really like to see what works and why. To do this, try asking questions of the text. For instance: Why did the poet or writer use that particular form, structure, setting, viewpoint, character, or ____ (fill in the blank)? What effect did this decision have on the poem or manuscript?

Analyze each of those techniques to give yourself more information about what works well and what does not. Ask, for instance, if the style is formal, loose, or chatty. Does the poem or manuscript have a rhythmic flow when you read the piece aloud? What words jump out? Do they add emphasis or reinforce a sound effect or encourage readers to think more about the topic?

Also notice sensory details. Analyze whether the poet or writer relied more on the sense of sound, sight, smell, taste, touch, or feeling. A well-written poem or manuscript might tap into all of the senses.

Notice the viewpoint or perspective, too. Does anything seem fresh or memorable? If so, what? Be specific. Also ask what would happen if a first person poem or story (I, me, mine, we) were written in second person (you) or third person (he, she, his, hers, them, they.)

Asking questions of a poem or manuscript may seem awkward at first, but your interrogation skills will improve with practice. To ease the task, start with a book, story, article, or poem that you think is poorly written, then focus on the flaws. Identify each as clearly as you can. For instance, you might think a children’s picture book text or a short story for adults has too many characters doing too many things in too short a space. Or maybe a nonfiction article rambles too much to clarify the points. Or maybe you just don’t believe the characters in a novel.

As you precisely identify any flaws, you will begin to read like a writer. More importantly, the process will help you to be less apt to make the same mistakes yourself. If, however, you suspect your work of a similar problem, just ask questions of the poem or manuscript. See what’s not working and why. Then correct those mistakes as you revise.

[For an objective critique, consult, or edit of your poems, picture book, book proposal, or other manuscript, visit The Poetry Editor website - http://www.thepoetryeditor.com .]