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VCFA Guest Post: Reading Like a Writer

Most writers I know are avid readers. I have been for as long as I can remember. I read so much as a child that my mother often scolded me, saying things like, “You spend too much time sitting around with your nose in a book. Get up and DO SOMETHING!”

But I WAS doing something. I was learning how to be a writer. Without even realizing it, I was studying how writers use language, create tension, bring characters to life, etc. All that reading expanded my vocabulary, refined my literary tastes, and taught me genre-specific conventions. And the best part? My education-by-osmosis was not only painless, it was pleasurable.

When I eventually went to the Vermont College of Fine Arts (then called simply Vermont College) to work on an MFA in Writing, I learned a more direct approach to my education as a writer. At the beginning of each semester in the program, I was required to create a personal reading list pertinent to my writing goals. The list included books on craft as well as children’s/young adult books in the genre I was writing. Each month, I then had to write two critical essays discussing what I had learned from my reading.

Often, it wasn’t until I sat down to write those essays that I recognized what I had absorbed.

I know the essays were the bane of some of my fellow students. But for me, the process of organizing my thoughts about a book I’d read and then putting those thoughts into writing led me to new insights—insights I might never have discovered by osmosis alone. (For an example of how this works, see the Writing Workout below.) Perhaps this is one of the reasons so many writers are also bloggers—the web has become a place to organize our thoughts and share our insights about both reading and writing.
Since graduating from VCFA, “Reading as a writer” has become second nature to me, even when I’m reading “for fun.”

I also continue to choose books that will help me learn specific techniques. I recently read the young-adult novel The Vanishing Point: A Story of Lavinia Fontana by Louise Hawes, one of my teachers at VCFA. Fontana was a Renaissance artist who lived in 16th-century Bologna, and the novel is a fictionalized account of her adolescence. My current writing project is a historical novel set in 18th-century Italy, and is also based on the life of a real woman of the time. While reading Hawes’s novel, I studied how she wove in setting details specific to the time period along with known facts from Lavinia Fontana’s life. The book taught me a great deal!

Next time you practice “reading as a writer,” consider trying the following Writing Workout to deepen your experience:

Writing Workout: Reading as a Writer

In preparation for “reading as a writer,” decide what aspect of writing you will study. For example, you may choose to focus on characterization, dialogue, description, plot, setting, use of flashbacks, etc. When I started at VCFA, I knew one of the shortcomings in my own writing was a lack of specific detail. So, in my first two semesters, I read to study how authors incorporated details into their writing.

Ideally, you will read the book you are studying more than once. The first time is to simply enjoy the story. However, if you’re pressed for time, you can read for pleasure and analyze at the same time.

If you are able, purchase a paperback copy of the book you’ve chosen. With a highlighting pen, mark occurrences of the technique you are studying. For example, while studying the use of details, I highlighted every use of sensory detail that I found. (If you’re working with a borrowed book, then take notes describing each occurrence of the technique. Make sure to include the corresponding page numbers.)

Doing the above alone will likely be an eye-opening experience. But to take this exercise a step further, write a 300-800 word essay or blog post discussing what you learned from your reading. Your essay should include some of the examples you highlighted in the text. Important: be sure to discuss how you will apply what you learned to your own writing. And don’t forget—you can learn as much, if not more, from a book you don’t like as from one you do.

Carmela Martino writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry for readers of all ages. She also teaches writing classes for children and adults. Her first published novel for children, ROSA, SOLA (Candlewick Press), began as her creative thesis while pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College. Over ten years after graduating from the program, Carmela remains close to her classmates from VCFA. (Her class was nicknamed “The Hive” and they continue to “buzz” via daily emails and periodic reunions.) She blogs regularly with three of those classmates at www.TeachingAuthors.com, a blog by six children’s authors who also teach writing. To read more about Carmela and her work, visit her website, http://www.carmelamartino.com. You can also contact her there if you have any questions or comments about her post or Vermont College.

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  1. Caroline Starr Rose’s avatar

    I would so love to be in a program like this! How satisfying to intentionally read and learn with other writers. Thank you for the very practical way you’ve walked us through ways we can make our own reading and work stronger.

  2. Barbara Watson’s avatar

    Reading as a writer IS a whole different way of reading. This reading exercise is wonderful! My own writing needed a boost in verb choice. I listed verbs as I read (and still do) and refer back to my list while I’m writing.

  3. Karenof4’s avatar

    What an interesting post! I LOVE the idea of writing/blogging an essay about what I learn while reading as a writer. Thank you so much for sharing! :)

  4. Anita’s avatar

    I think I kind of do this already. If I’m having trouble with a specific component of my writing, for example setting or dialogue, I tend to zone in on those parts in whatever book I’m reading. I’ve learned a great deal by doing this, but will certainly learn more if I make an exercise out of it like you’ve described above. Thank you for this post.

  5. Andrea’s avatar

    A very interesting post! Although I read a lot in the genre I’m writing, I love these ideas on how to take the learning a step further.

  6. Sharon Mayhew’s avatar

    Wonderful post, Carmela! I hadn’t thought about highlighting in my books. I do write notes on a big sticky note and leave it attached to the front of the book, so I can referr to it more easily. I also keep my books sorted by genre and favorites in each genre. That makes it easy to pull them out to review when I need them. :)

  7. Carmela Martino’s avatar

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’m glad you found the post helpful. Barbara, I love the idea of listing verbs as you read–I may have my students do that as a writing exercise. And Sharon, I just recently discovered that I can read ebooks on my computer with Kindle for PC. The Kindle allows you to both highlight and add notes as you read, making Reading as a Writer even easier!

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