A Thief’s Guide to Reading

There are a lot of books and essays out there purporting to teach you how to read “like a writer.” In my experience, they actually teach you to read like a teacher. Most of them involve a level of textual analysis incommensurate with an actual writer’s level of conscious craft. Which is fine: teachers are there to squeeze out all the juice they can, and good for them. I did it when I taught philosophy; professors of literature do it when they teach novels. 

What a writer reads like, however, when they are actually reading like a writer, is a thief.

Most people have some experience reading like a thief. They do it when they have to make a resume or C.V. for the first time. They trawl the internet and beg their friends for samples of the kind of document they’re preparing to compose, bending their model-making, imitative minds to the rhetorical task of self-presentation. That reading, the intense, appropriative kind, whereby you figure out how to write the kind of text you want to write, is reading like a writer. It’s not reading for enjoyment (though it can be enjoyable); it’s not close reading (though it involves reading very closely); it’s not scholarly reading (though it may involve a lot of cross-reference and note-taking).

Reading like a writer is, more than anything, building an imitable model of what you like about what you read. You read attentive to your own spontaneous feelings, and when you discover something you wish you had written, you figure out how it was written, and you try to write your own version of it. The culmination of reading like a writer is writing something that achieves the effects you admire.

If you’re trying to figure out how to read like a writer, here are some modeling and imitation techniques I recommend, just to get you started. You’ll need to think up your own forms of modeling and imitation, too; that’s part of it.

1. Syntactic imitation. Find a long paragraph you really like the sound of. Diagram every sentence in it. (Don’t know how to diagram a sentence? Go learn. It’s worth it if you want to read like a writer.) Then write your own paragraph, using your own content, but exactly imitating the syntax of your model: where they have a noun, you have a noun; where they have a sub-clause, you have a sub-clause; where they have thirteen words in a sentence, you have thirteen words in a sentence.

2. Functional imitation. Take a whole text—an essay or short story, let’s say—which impressed you as a whole, and break it into parts. If it’s short, perhaps break it into paragraphs; if it has built-in parts, scenes or sections, break it into those parts. Read each part and sum up for yourself in one sentence what that part is doing for the overall effect of the piece. For example, perhaps the first scene of a short story is characterizing the protagonist, or introducing the story conflict. Perhaps the first paragraph of an essay is telling an anecdote that introduces the theme or problem the essay will discuss. Go through each scene or section or paragraph this way, until you have a “functional outline” — an outline of the piece devoid of content, which purely expresses the moves or functions in each part, in a general way. Now write your own text, with your own content, imitating the sections, function by function.

3. Modal imitation. Just for stories, really. Highlight in different colors each sentence that is summary narration, in-scene narration, description, dialogue, and exposition. Now write your own story, with your own content, but make sure your sentences follow the exact sequence of narrative modes.

4. Alchemical imitation. I use this weird name to describe a kind of modeling by “ingredients.” What do I mean by that? I mean modeling and imitating the materials of content a writer used. How many characters, important objects, and locations did a story have? How many theses, sources, arguments, objections, anecdotes, etc., did an essay have? List them, then make your own list, with the same number of each kind of thing (but a different thing, obviously), and make a story or essay using just these ingredients.

Do these seemingly mechanical imitations, and you will learn invaluable, intuitive techniques. Before long they’ll come to you spontaneously when you face a compositional problem.

That’s it. That’s the whole secret of how to read like a writer / thief.

Read. Notice what you like. Model it. Imitate it.

(And, obviously, don’t just imitate anybody’s actual words. That’s plagiarism and it is not how writers read, not just because it’s wrong, but because plagiarism doesn’t teach you how to write better the way modeling and imitation do.)

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