Tuesday 1 December 2015

Active Reading for Writers

Active ReadingWARNING: Once acquired, this skill can be difficult to get rid of. You will notice writing techniques everywhere.

Active Reading means becoming more than the average consumer of literature. It means abandoning the comfort of passive reading.

If you’re a driver, you might remember how your perspective changed when started learning to drive. Before, you simply got in the car, fastened your seat-belt and that was it. That was your active engagement with the driving process. You allowed yourself to be transported, swaying with the twists and turns, becoming alarmed at any sudden stops or unexpected movements.

But, once you started learning to drive, you became a more active passenger. Hopefully you’re not an annoying backseat driver who can’t stop commenting, but now, when someone else is driving, you are probably more aware of what they are doing. You notice at least some of the hazards on the road ahead and anticipate some of the bends and the sudden stops.

Active Reading does a similar thing. You have to train your mind to notice things you wouldn’t usually notice as a reader.

How to Read Actively

Begin With a Book You Know

Choose a book you are familiar with and read it slowly.  It is very easy, at first (and much harder later) to slip back into passive reading. So choosing a book you know allows you to focus on the actual writing and the story structure, rather than getting distracted by simply enjoying the book.

Look at the Author’s Decisions

You want to start looking at the author’s decisions and the effect those decisions are intended to have on the reader.  These decisions are everywhere and you need to learn to spot them. As writers, we make choices about the words we use, our sentence structures, the shapes of our plots, our character’s actions and the length of our chapters. So we know what kind of decisions the authors we are reading had to make. Our job is to notice and analyse them.

Decide How Effective Those Decisions Are

It sounds a little big-headed, doesn’t it? Judging the effectiveness of a successful author’s decisions… and perhaps it is. But a certain amount of big-headedness is beneficial to a writer And all writers are different. We aren’t reading actively to look down on another writer’s work or to say that they did something wrong. It’s their book. They made those decisions. You are writing an entirely different book and you will probably make very different decisions. And that’s the way it should be. But by analysing the decisions another author has made, and looking at the ways you, as a reader, are affected by those decisions, you can begin to expand your awareness of writing techniques and their practical application.

Consider Applying Those Techniques to Your Own Writing

The techniques we notice through active reading are going to affect our writing. Whether we agree with an author’s decisions or not, we will take away something from the experience. It is unlikely that you’ll agree with every decision an author makes, even if they are your favourite, but you can always learn something from them. You might simply learn that you don’t like a certain style of writing dialogue, or that you would have structured a scene differently if it were your story.
An important thing to consider is that the book you are actively reading was written with a specific audience in mind and that the author made their decisions with the intention of affecting that audience. If you are able to look at those decisions objectively and understand why they were made, you can consider how relevant they are to your own writing and whether those same techniques would affect your target audience in similar ways.

Learn to Turn It Off

Once you are able to read actively, you will find it hard to become a passive reader again. But, just as we can fall asleep or play car games or simply stare out of the window while someone else is driving, provided they are someone we trust, we can become passive readers again. It just takes a bit of work and, sometimes, a promise to yourself that you will analyse the book later, possibly re-reading it actively after your initial passive read.

Learning to read passively again is important. So, even if it seems difficult, work at it. You don’t want to lose touch with the simple enjoyment of reading that led you to becoming a writer in the first place.

Notice the Invisible Writing

I believe that good writing, really good writing, is invisible. So, once you’ve got the hang of Active Reading, particularly pay attention to any books you find it hard with. Notice any books where you keep slipping back into passive reading. The books where the writing techniques disappear and the stories are so smooth that you forget you’re reading. These authors have the most to teach us, but we have to work harder to learn from them.

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