Saturday, March 26, 2011

White on Reading Like a Writer

Tiffany White discusses the virtues of careful reading at The Literary Lab. Excerpt:
Read like you mean it. I am a college student and all I ever hear about is close reading. Reading so that you understand the "text" as they say. Reading and marking things up; more than underlining and highlighting, I'm talking annotations, acronyms and yes, underlining and highlighting. They call this "marginalia" and as I stated, close reading. I call it reading like a writer. Let me explain.

It is all well and good to read for inspiration but did you ever question how or why someone has written that beautiful sentence or constructed a paragraph the way they have? How all those elements, the sentence, paragraph, rhythm of the prose relates to the theme of the novel? If you have, you are reading like a writer.
Read the whole thing. "Wannabes talk about writing, while writers actually write." That's how the proverb goes, and there's some truth in it. We all know posers who peer over the rims of their espresso cups while discussing elaborate plot treatments, yet somehow never get around to putting those lofty thoughts on paper. Still, the saying only tells half the story, because anyone who excels in his field needs to combine theory and praxis, to blend how to do what we do along with the actual doing of it. The truly skilled never divorce knowledge and action.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


dolorah said...

I can't seem to pick up a book anymore without wondering how it was crafted, what the Author was thinking while writing each concept.

I'll go read the rest of the article.

Thanks Loren


Unknown said...

I've been doing this for as long as I can remember. My clearest memory of wanting to be a writer was when I was in my early-to-mid teens and reading R.A. Salvatore, noticing the awkward sentences and bits that should have been rephrased and thinking to myself, "Man, *I* could totally write *this* well, and *he* got published..."

Barbara Hambly is one writer whose work often makes me pause to reflect on how well-phrased a particular line was. China Mieville does that sometimes, though he's always got this "Look at me! Look at what I just did!" vibe to his stuff.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

One of the most self-affirming moments of my life was when I read my book--and realized I had implanted some deep parallelism and symbolism that I didn't know I'd done. Essentially I read my book as a professor, and found some things that I as an author had put in without thinking.

That said...I'm as huge a fan of annotation as they come, and I don't write in fiction.

In nonfiction and poetry, I actually prefer marked-in copies; even if the previous annotator is the most superficial or wrongheaded sort of reader, he may have stumbled upon insights I missed. And reading the annotations of someone who is smart can be a pure joy.

But again, in fiction that doesn't work for me. Mainly because I tend to read for story and characters. I can appreciate the literary puzzles of Gene Wolfe or Neal Stephenson, but my first love is for the heartfelt adventures of a Tolkien or a McKinley. Both have considerable craftsmanship in their writing, but it isn't the type I want to mar with underlining or commentary--it would feel rather like marking the perspective lines on top of The Last Supper.

And I suppose I make up for it in poetry. My copy of Spenser's Faerie Queene is filled with annotations, and I hope that it will gain more each time I read it. The same is true of the Pearl-poet, though I (tragically!) lost my first copy of his complete works, and still mourn the loss of my undergraduate commentary, which I'm sure would teach me more about the process of discovering medieval literature than the poet himself.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I hang around with a lot of English professors who tell me that most students today are incapable of close reads. Their attention span simply....

Loren Eaton said...


Hope you like it! I think close reading is a good habit to cultivate.

Loren Eaton said...


William Gibson does it for me. His prose is so dense that it can become impenetrable, but sometimes everything lines up and his sentences become piercingly beautiful. I like what I've read of Mieville, but Marxism doesn't do it for me, so I haven't gotten into much of his stuff.

Loren Eaton said...


In an undergraduate writing class, one of my cohorts did a Freudian interpretation on his own poem about the creative process. His conclusion? "Man, I'm like totally sexually repressed!" That had me laughing most of the day.

Loren Eaton said...


Recreational internet certainly doesn't cultivate a long attention span. There are just so many distra--

Evan Lewis said...

This sounds sensible. I read a book with the same title (by another author) that I found pretentious and mostly a waste of time.

Loren Eaton said...

Some of those writing books get all metaphysical and hokey about the process, which I've never much enjoyed. Close reading (aka reading with blood, sweat, tears and a highlighter in hand) seems a more reasonable approach to me.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I really liked this post. I'm glad Tiffany guest-posted on the Lab!

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Oh, and Loren, we can always use more guest posts... :)

Loren Eaton said...

Once I get done with finals, I may have to contact you about that!