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.)

Literary Lectionary: I

“The fact is, my writing has always found itself facing two divergent paths that correspond to two different types of knowledge. One path goes into the mental space of bodiless rationality, where one may trace lines that converge, projections, abstract forms, vectors of force. The other path goes through a space crammed with objects and attempts to create a verbal equivalent of that space by filling the page with words, involving a most careful, painstaking effort to adapt what is written to what is not written, to the sum of what is sayable and not sayable. These are two different drives toward exactitude that will never attain complete fulfillment, one because “natural” languages always say something more than formalized languages can—natural languages always involve a certain amount of noise that impinges upon the essentiality of the information—and the other because, in representing the density and continuity of the world around us, language is revealed as defective and fragmentary, always saying something less with respect to the sum of what can be experienced.”

— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the New Millenium

Italo Calvino.

Starting Magazines

Some friends of mine are thinking of starting a magazine. Friends of mine are always thinking of starting a magazine. And if they’re not thinking about it, then usually I am.

I think the first magazine I started was for my homeschool writing club. We called ourselves The Littaerians, and I became intoxicated with the idea of putting my geek skills to use publishing our best stuff on the internet. I made a clunky geocities website out of pure html, made some eye-watering animations, and even composed some regrettable MIDI music to autoplay in the background.

I didn’t edit my second magazine, but I published it. One of my older sister’s college friends wanted to start a litmag called Root and Branch (despite the fact that a magazine already existed with that name…). All he lacked was the know-how to make a website for it. That’s where I came in. (It’s amazing to remember a time when a group of college students would have been stumped by the problem of putting together a website.) My recompense for all my work was that I was permitted to write, sometimes, in small ways, for the magazine. This would not be the last time I paid in time for the opportunity to get published.

(Now that writing is my job, I look, like most professional writers, askance at publications that ask for free writing of the highest quality; but I started lower than that. I started by working to earn the right to give my work away for free.)

I didn’t start any magazines for the remainder of my time in grade school. But then college happened and I was appalled to discover my institution had no student magazine. Crossings remedied that situation, editor-in-chief moi. This magazine existed in print. I had a graphic designer, a masthead, the whole thing. Themed issues. A mix of fiction, poetry, essay, book review. It was fun. I wonder if it’s still being published? Maybe so; I handed it off to a successor when I graduated.

I started a few other magazines in college, web-only things with groups of friends. They would flourish for a while, then die grateful deaths. I also worked, naturally, for the student newspaper, where I had an op-ed column. Yes, I’m afraid I was an op-ed columnist.

Graduate school. For several years I stayed out of the magazine game. Then I got invited to be part of the masthead of the wonderful Open Letters Monthly. It was fun to be part of a concern that had been going for a long time (in internet years), small-scale but high-quality. The other editors taught me how to write for the public, for readers, which was a lesson I needed, and I also got to edit a bunch of really good writers (many of whom you now regularly read elsewhere). I also fell into the role I can’t seem to avoid, tinkering with the website. Open Letters Monthly was a big step up in my résumé of magazines, and as I quietly beavered away in my role, watching how it was organized and the nature of its internal politics and public presence, I stored up ideas for how I would run things if I were in charge, ideas which continue to whisper in my ear in a quiet seductive voice.

I also experimented with Lingua Barbara, another online-only venture, this time a short-lived experiment in getting philosophy graduate students to write readable public philosophy. Our tagline: “philosophy for humans.” It fizzled pretty quickly.

I haven’t felt the bite of the magazine bug for a while. Something about writing for money for established magazines, about getting a dark peek at the inner workings of the publishing industry through anonymous reviewing, and about making a lot of writer friends has finally impressed me with the sense I always lacked that a really good, really successful magazine requires more than enthusiasm and effort… Notably, it requires expertise, time, and money.

But sometimes ideas still flash across my brain, obsess me for a day.

A weekly speculative fiction email-newsletter-style magazine that simply published one novelette at a time (that’s stories of 7000-17,500 words, per the official awards standards), sending it out in a beautifully designed email on the same day each week, with original illustrations, and then publishing all the novelettes at the end of the year in one thick book.

Or a weekly magazine with the sole purpose of reviewing one book a week, at great length—five to eight thousand words, let’s say—and the books would all be novels, of various kinds, published at some point in the last year. It would be called The Slow Review of Books.

Or, or, or…

Do you feel how, just talking about these things, a sort of energy percolates in the back of your throat, tightening your neck muscles like the onset of a pleasurable headache?

Maybe that’s just me.

Cliches of the Critics

I was writing a book review a few days ago, and I remembered this post from an older iteration of the blog. (Possibly because I had just deployed one of the cliches herein satirized; but over this fact we shall pass as if we did not know it.)

Here, in my opinion, are what the cliches of a certain red-eyed and harried demographic—the book reviewers—appear to mean, the function these cliches fulfill, and what they actually mean. Don’t let us get away with these…


Acclaimed
– apparent meaning: much praised.
– lazy function: to excuse the reviewer from finding any independent reasons why this author should be more important to you than an equivalent weight of white raisins.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer read a bunch of other reviews of the book first, to get some ideas for their own review, and discovered most of the others were positive; alternatively, the reviewer considers this author too popular to poke with a critical stick.

Characters Come To Life
– apparent meaning: you thought this book was fiction, but it’s actually a necromantic spell.
– lazy function: to imply that a book’s characters are more than under-written stereotypes, but without showing or explaining why this is the case.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer fell asleep while reading the book and dreamed they were being chased by one or more of the characters. And, a fortiori: this reviewer confuses their emotional reaction to a story with its more objective qualities.

Cookie-cutter
– apparent meaning: the characters / books / sentences of the author under review, like your mamma’s gingerbread men, have identical formal dimensions.
– lazy function: to imply that the book under review adhered to genre stereotypes or slavishly imitated another story, but without just showing that by examples.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer reads far too much of this genre / the reviewer has been required to read far too much of this author, and resents it.

Epic
– apparent meaning: this book belongs to the tradition inaugurated by Homer’s Iliad.
– lazy function: to indicate that the book is very long.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer did not finish reading this book.

Hack
– apparent meaning: a writer of copious, unoriginal, uninspiring, but adequate words.
– lazy function: to indicate dissatisfaction with an author’s approach to the book under review, without going to the trouble of establishing where the reviewer can even imagine having done better.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer respects the author’s character but considers them deficient in intellect, taste, or time; also, use of this word often connotes a wary respect based on self-recognition.

Haunting
– apparent meaning: a book that sticks with you in a rather distressing way, much like a ghost, even after its physical presence has gone away.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer (and you too, dear reader) is such a sensitive individual that strong aesthetic experiences painfully color their experience of everyday life.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer was overcome by a horrifying personal memory as they read, possibly as a result of the old guacamole they were eating to give them strength to finish, and they have actually already forgotten the book’s plot (but the after-effects of the guacamole continue, and they’re pretty sure they’re going to have nightmares tonight).

Inimitable
– apparent meaning: Impossible to imitate.
– lazy function: to indicate stylistic distinctiveness, deployed to avoid the hard work of showing and accurately describing what is distinctive about the style in question.
– unintended revelation: The writer under review has such recognizable patterns and mannerisms that they are precisely imitable. They are so imitable, in fact, that you would actually beclown yourself by imitating them. So the word reveals the opposite of what it means, confusing description and prescription.

Laconic
– apparent meaning: short.
– lazy function: to imply the reviewer appreciates (and perhaps aspires to) a certain elegant asceticism.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was so grateful for how short the book was, he chose to overlook how much it failed to persuade / convince / entertain and instead praised it for its abortive qualities.

Lapidary
– apparent meaning: having the precision of an engraving or inscription on a monument.
– lazy function: impressive-sounding word for prose the reviewer more or less liked without being able to put a finger on why: a word the reader is likely to nod knowingly about without actually understanding.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is a complete philistine when it comes to the plastic arts.

Lavish
– apparent meaning: to indicate that a book has nice paper, lots of pictures, a well-made binding, and good cover art.
– lazy function: to tactfully intimate this book is expensive as fuck.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer would never have got hold of this book but for the fact that review copies are free; moreover, he will soon make a killing by auctioning it off on Amazon; moreover, he is talking about what it looks like to avoid the fact that the book is uninteresting and pointless in every other way.

Magisterial
– apparent meaning: the author or book under review has great authority.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer has the erudition to distinguish truly original or comprehensively evenhanded scholarship on the book’s topic from all the other shit that’s written about it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was impressed by the sheer length of the book, the fact that it was written by somebody famous for being smart, or because he has apparently never read anything else on the subject.

Meticulous
– apparent meaning: extremely careful and detailed.
– lazy function: to weakly praise a thing the reviewer found incredibly boring, but nonetheless felt they ought to like, probably.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer only finished this book because they would have felt guilty otherwise, and they wish to delude themselves into believing that they actually enjoyed it, purely as a psychological defense against the recognition of the true abyss of the reading to $ ratio of their ill-advised career.

Nuanced
– apparent meaning: the author under review makes subtle distinctions.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is not an ideological hack or fundamentalist of some stripe, but a sophisticated and cosmopolitan thinker, who recognizes the manifold considerations relevant to a contested issue.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer actually agrees with the author’s position on this issue, and suspects that people who don’t agree should be made to read it.

Pitch perfect
– apparent meaning: the author under review never uses the wrong word, and always conveys a scene in words appropriate to its significance or an argument in words appropriate to its gravity.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a genuine afficionado of prose style, whose discrimination rivals that of Nabokov.
– unintended revelation: (1) the reviewer agrees with the author’s position, (2) the reviewer probably knows the author or wants to be like them, (3) the reviewer sort of suspects their own prose sounds rather like this author’s.

Poignant
– apparent meaning: profoundly touching.
– lazy function: to express, tactfully, that a story was melodramatic (but the reviewer can’t say so or they’d be either traducing a famous name or trampling somebody’s personal story).
– unintended revelation: the reviewer, dead inside from so much reading, is actually unable to produce a tear unless they use a juicer on an onion and then pour the liquid into their eye with a funnel.

Reads like a novel
– apparent meaning: this book, while not a novel, is as much fun to read as a novel.
– lazy function: to imply that this book is really fun even though its topic sounds boring enough to kill a cow.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is privately extremely interested in the topic of this book.

Resonant [also as a verb: “this book resonates”]
– apparent meaning: this book is about much more than at first appears.
– lazy function: to avoid the actual work of drawing connections between the book’s content and the things it reminded the reviewer of.
– unintended revelation: as the reviewer read this book, they were thinking about something else.

Seminal
– apparent meaning: very influential, much the way semen is influential in the conception of new humans.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer’s godlike view of the landscape of books allows him to make authoritative proclamations about the subterranean lava flows of literary influence.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer wishes more people would write books like this one, and is also unaware that, most likely, the thing he finds original and influential in the book had been done to death actual centuries before it was written; also, the reviewer is likely male.

“X by Y is, pardon the expression / as it were, [one of the other words in this glossary]”
– apparent meaning: Because I am aware that I am lazy, I am not, in fact, lazy.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is generally speaking above reviewer cliches, but in this case has found a true instance of the original phenomenon for which the cliche was first invented and is therefore justified in resorting to it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is not only lazy, but also stupid enough to think that by parading their laziness they will convince you they are not lazy.

Sobering
– apparent meaning: that this book will make you more serious about life, or about some particular issue.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a serious person who gravely applauds the earnestness of others.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer thinks you, the reader, are probably too frivolous about this issue; also, the reviewer was likely drinking as he wrote this review.