August 19th, 2020

Read Like A Writer, Write Like A Reader

By Barbara Linn Probst

Before I turned to fiction, I was a hybrid of academic and therapist. There was a truism in clinical practice that having been in therapy made you a better therapist—a complicated question, impossible to prove, although we always encouraged students to experience therapy themselves before attempting to offer it to others. I got curious and decided to ask the question in reverse: what was it like for people who entered therapy after having spent time as therapists?  Could they leave their therapist-minds behind when they moved to “the other chair” and surrender to the client role? As you might guess, it wasn’t so easy.

Now that I’m a novelist, I’m interested in a similar question for writers. Most of us were readers before we became writers, and would probably agree that our reading experience influences our experience as writers. But what happens when a writer opens a book and shifts to her reader-identity? Can we leave our writer-minds behind and surrender to the “reader chair”—and should we?  

Once again, I asked.  More than fifty people on several writer groups I belong to responded to my question: “How do you read? Do you lose yourself in the story (as a reader might) or read to study how the author did it (as a writer might)?”

The responses can be summarized into three big ideas.

"It depends on the quality of the book."

For some, there was a clear difference in how they read “well-written books” and how they read “poorly-written books.” 

  • If the book is really good, I lose myself in it and forget to “read like a writer,” even if I want to and try to.
  • A good story hijacks my brain and turns me back into a reader!
  • If it's a book with problems, I tend to read like a writer and start seeing the issues.
  • A poorly-written book will break the spell and activate that inner critic.

On the other hand, some people felt that the writer-brain interfered, even with well-written books, and often ruined their enjoyment.

  • Writer-mind can interfere, and I wish it didn’t!  It’s a real downer.
  • I’d like to read like a reader but it can be really difficult.
  • The inner writer critic comes out far too often. I find myself pulled from the story.
  • I'd like to read as a reader, but I find now that it's often as a writer. Oh, there's THAT trope. Oh, what a nice use of interjection. Why's she switching POV now? Hah, great dialogue! Ooh, what a great way to describe that expression. Ah, she just raised the stakes. It's kind of annoying because I miss just reading for pleasure.

People dealt with that challenge in different ways—typically by toggling back and forth or by reading a book more than once.

"I switch back and forth."

For some, the “toggling” happens as they go. While mainly “just reading,” they might stop to note something the writer did that they admired—or to wince when something is jarring.

  • I read like a reader who is a writer, meaning that I simply read, but sometimes take notes on things that impressed me about the writing.
  • A good book makes me stop to ponder how she did that!
  • I often re-read a certain passage and think, “Now that’s a great idea to describe xyz!”
  • I try to read like a reader but I catch myself noticing if the POV veered slightly off or if the scene jumped without a clear explanation. I find myself thinking: hmmm. Something was removed here and the transition is now bumpy.
  • Mostly as a reader but I sometimes stop dead as a writer to admire a great sentence or be shocked by bad technique.

For others, the two processes happen alongside one another, as if different parts of the self are engaged in different ways.

  • The writer can still think along the way, while the reader feels.
  • I read like both: like a chef enjoying a dish prepared by someone else, who can't help figuring out how it was prepared and what ingredients went into it. Or like a singer listening to another singer, and appreciating how they handle reaching difficult notes and where technique compensates for vocal flaws.

I go back and read the book a second time.

With an exceptionally good book, many people said that they read for enjoyment the first time, and then go back to re-read with their “writer-brains” so they can focus on craft and identify what the author did that was so effective.

  • Then a second time as a writer, paying more attention to how it was written rather than what it's about.
  • If a book wows me, I'll reread it, sometimes to be wowed again, sometimes to study technique to understand why it wowed me.
  • If it's amazing or I couldn't put it down, I go back and try to figure out what exactly created that response.

This was especially so for books that had effective twists and turns.

  • If the book intrigues me enough I'll go back and reread as a writer so that I can understand how this particular book kept me turning the pages
  • I wanted to analyze why it worked so well and what it was that made me lose myself.
  • The twist at the end revealed why the point-of-view character behaved as he did throughout the story. I had to reread it with that knowledge.

Many people noted how important it was to experience the story as a reader, before all else.

  • If you don't read first as a reader, the story is no longer a work of art or humanity.
  • I would never want to forget that the story is written for readers, that the writer has something personal to convey, and is speaking to me, not demonstrating writing technique. I can't really experience the story if all I care about is to study its writing, even if I naturally tend to notice the writer's skill as I read.

These reflections offer an additional reminder. It’s important to remember that we’re writing for the reader—to give the reader that immersive experience of falling under the spell of the story, the same experience that we ourselves enjoy!

That may sound obvious, but I know I can become caught up in craft and technique—the sort of things that writers care about. I can spend hours worrying about eliminating “deadweight” or searching for the perfect word to convey the meaning I’m after. Although these things are part of our craft, I suspect that they’re not the things that readers care about.

Story.
Characters.
Meaning.

Isn’t that what we care about too, when we are in our reader-selves?  When we read, many of us toggle back-and-forth. We also need to toggle back-and-forth when we write— balancing our search for the highest level of craft we can muster and our feeling for the reader.

What about you? How do you read? Do you find yourself switching into your writer-brain when you read? If so, what triggers the switch? Please share with us down in the comments!

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, Queen of the Owls (April 2020), is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

Endorsed by best-selling authors such as Christina Baker Kline and Caroline Leavitt, Queen of the Owls was selected as one of the 20 most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother, one of the best Spring fiction books by Parade Magazine, and a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle. It was also featured in lists compiled by Pop Sugar and Entertainment Weekly, among others. It won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for both the First Horizon and the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s book-related article, “Naked: Being Seen is Terrifying but Liberating,” appeared in Ms. Magazine on May 27.

Barbara is also the author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When The Labels Don't Fit. She has a PhD in clinical social work, blogs for several award-winning sites for writers, and is a serious amateur pianist. Her second book releases in April 2021. To learn more about Barbara and her work,  please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

22 responses to “Read Like A Writer, Write Like A Reader”

  1. goldy4348 says:

    I own up to reading so much in order to gain tools as a writer, that this saddens me greatly. I will endeavor to read for the sheer enjoyment - as soon as I complete self editing 30 years of writing!!

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      I didn't mean to sadden you! This was just an exploration, and there's no right or wrong or "should." You may be someone who enjoys stories through film (for example) rather than through books. In the old days, there was also the oral tradition—people listened to stories in the company of others, rather than reading them as a solitary pastime. I read in the same genre as I write, but not everyone is like that. So I hope you will do whatever works for you!

  2. This is something that has been on my mind for some time. Thank you for sharing your findings. Turning off the internal editor has become very difficult. As the years spent writing have progressed, the worse it has become. It may be because I have three critique partners who are fairly prolific, so I seem to always be in edit mode on either my work or theirs. Since my reading time is now limited, I find that a book must be really well written with a dynamic, well paced plot to hold my interest. I even find myself critiquing movies and TV series! I suppose I can lay some of this difficulty to read or watch TV without the editor kicking in at the door of my ADD, but it did not happen until I started writing and studying craft!

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      Yup, I hear you! One way to experiment might be to read outside the genre in which you write, just as another commenter suggests below. It's a way to "trick" that editor-self 🙂 I would add that the higher standards you are finding that you now have might be a natural result of your own experience and hard work as a writer. It makes sense that a book has to be "really well written with a dynamic well-paced plot" in order to hold your interest—one can't quarrel with that! I'm that way too. I set aside many more books than i finish now, and I'm okay with that. As you say, time is limited. But what a joy when one does find a great book!

  3. amreade says:

    I find that it's easier to lose myself in a story when I'm reading outside my writing genre. I'm more likely to be studying the author's techniques, good or bad, when I'm reading in-genre. Great post.

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      Thanks so much! Yes, I was about to make the same point in reply to another comment when yours popped onto the screen! When I'm reading in-genre, there can also be that green-eyed monster that says, "I wish I could write that well!" That can be inspiring too. So the "inner critique" can also be someone who admires what she reads, rather than someone who wants to improve on it!

  4. Eldred Bird says:

    The more I write, the more I tend to read like a writer. If a story sucks me enough to shut down that part of my brain, then I need to go back and read it again with my writer brain fully engaged to see how the author hooked me. The earlier the book gets me to suspend my writer brain, the more I need to dig in and figure out the author's technique so I can add it to my toolbox.

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      You add a really interesting aspect to the conversation, Eldred! The fact that the earlier your reader-brain hijacks your writer-brain, the more likely that there is a lot here to study and learn! Thanks for that! (I wonder how that's affected b genre, by the way?)

      • Eldred Bird says:

        For me genre doesn't really seem to matter. I read outside of genre quite often just to broaden my horizons and learn new things. I've found that no matter what genre you write, there are elements of other genres present as well, like a romantic subplot in a mystery or thrill type action in a fantasy.

  5. I read as a complicated blend of reader/writer. Many times, I'll read a story, and the over-all story is okay, but find myself skipping ahead because it is too predictable. Sometimes I stop reading a story because the story is not very good AND the writing is terrible. And there are good well-written stories. I notice what makes them good, what makes the well-written; I'll re-read the section on the spot. Yes, I want to know what happens next, but I also want to study how we got there.

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      You make such a useful point—that it's not just the book-as-a-whole, but scene by scene. Some scenes make me slow down to savor the beauty and the craft. There are others that I race through, because of the story pace, but need to return to later. A blah book can have killer scenes, and vice versa. We never know where the hidden gems may lie in wait for us!

  6. We read in parallel. Part of me is taking in the story at face value and the other part is noting the good and the bad. It's why I'm forgiving of minor errors like typos and so on. If Writer Christina becomes outraged she demands the book be put down, which can happen. On the other hand, I've finished books so well written that I was moved to tears after. When the tears were dry I'd sit for awhile and marvel at the writing that'd moved me so much. In a way, at that point, my two selves are working together. I think that also happens while I'm reading, but I don't notice. I've talked with those whose writer self rules and will put a book down at the first flaw. That makes no sense to my inner selves. I note flaws without slowing my reading and move on. I also see my approach as an aid when writing. I've cried over a moving passage I've written, dried my eyes, and then decided "it could be even better" or "congratulations, Christina—for now."

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      I love how you've contemplated this question with so much nuance! Personally, I would put a book own because of a couple of "flaws," but if they keep happening with nothing to make up for it, I don't see the point of investing more time. And books are "good" in different ways, so it might depend on my mood and why I'm reading right now. You also raise the question of reading one's own writing, which I didn't touch on, but could very well be included in our conversation! To me, after being away from a manuscript for a bit, I need to return to it as a reader and see how that works 🙂

  7. Jenny Hansen says:

    I've been lucky so far in my reading in that I can still suspend my disbelief and fall into a good story. But my standards have gotten higher. If the book is subpar, I simply put it down and move on to something better.

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      I'm with you, in that my standards have changed. I've also found that I read more slowly than I used to, although my reading tends to accelerate as I get more deeply into the book—which I'm guessing is because my reader-brain has fully taken over!

  8. Since writing is just one of the forms of storytelling (films, songs, etc.), I find that becoming an author has heightened my engagement with ALL types of storytelling. Some days it's critical...other times it's a cracking-the-code observation...then it could be just to completely escape. My point: becoming storyteller has ruined and revved up my joy of stories being told to me.

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      "Ruined and revved up your joy"—love it! As you say, it's different on different days. I too have found myself watching films with "story eyes" to marvel at how the screenwriter did it. That's quite different from the way I used to watch films, which was more visual and emotional. And, for sure, narrative exists in so many forms, not just books 🙂

  9. ecellenb says:

    I'm an eclectic reader. Reading those in my own genre does not cause me to go into evaluation mode, but a poorly written book pulls me right out.

    I like to read first for fun and then once more my own education. There are many gifted writers in the world.

    One of my joys in life is reading for pleasure. When I was flat broke and couldn't go anywhere books were my way out, vacation and otherwise.

    Wonderful post!

    • barbaralinnprobst says:

      So glad you liked the post! Your experience seems to match that of most whom I spoke with = it's the quality of the book that determines whether writer-brain or reader-brain takes over! And yes, I read for pure pleasure myself! I can't imagine anyone wanting to be a writer who isn't also a reader, just as all the best cooks love to eat good food!

  10. dholcomb1 says:

    I try to not evaluate unless it's just not there. Editing issues jump out at me. But most of the time, I'm able to focus on reading and just enjoy it.

    denise

  11. My favourite way to read is when it takes effort to stay awake to the writing. When I need a virtual reminder that I’m not in, for example, 1940s Austria but instead alive in 2020s Canada. How has the author swept me so far from my reality? Answering that question is the ultimate experience for me, having to stop reading periodically to appreciate the story along with how the writer put it together!

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