Read Like a Writer: The Importance of Close Reading

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Get your magnifying glasses and microscopes! Your scalpels and fine-tooth combs! It’s time to read like a writer!

Call it a close reading.

Not of my blog, thank goodness, unless you feel so inclined.

You actually get to study your favorite piece of writing.

Keyword: study.

Close reading is more than just reading to understand or reading to enjoy.

A close reading is a study to discover and learn the intricate workings of a piece of writing.

This process is especially important for writers because it’s how we learn more about our craft.

And despite what you may be thinking, examining a piece of writing doesn’t take all the joy out of it.

If the piece is any good, a close reading will only deepen our appreciation for the work and help us see the magic, the dexterity, the surprises, the connections, the truths that lie beneath the many layers that great works are known for.

I think great writing begs close reading, because great writing has depth and doesn’t give away all its wonders in an initial or surface reading.

Although I began reading closely in high school, I wasn’t introduced to the term close reading until the middle of my undergraduate career.

I’ve been hooked ever since.

An interesting piece of writing is like an interesting person. I want to know more. I want to “pick the brain” of the piece, if you will. I want to ask: How do you do it? Where does your strength lie? What else do you have in your bag of tricks to offer the world?

As Kim Addonizio points out in Ordinary Genius, you will also nourish your own creativity for producing your own work.

Chapter 30 of the book is a simple guide for getting intimate with your favorite piece of writing.

First, read, read, and reread.

Second, pay attention to everything. In good writing everything matters, so pay attention. If the piece is long, you may want to focus on excerpts at first.

Third, catch the themes, the “reason-for-being of the piece.” You’ll find that all the parts and decisions the writer has made add up to the whole of the theme(s).

Fourth, notice tone and voice, usually conveyed through diction (word choice) or syntax (sentence structure).

Fifth, uncover the structure or skeleton. How does it begin and end? Where does it turn or change? Where does the tension build or slacken? How is repetition used, if at all? Where are the section breaks, line breaks, or stanza breaks?

These are five steps to get you started, but once you do, you’ll go wherever the writing takes you.

This is how to really read like a writer.

How do you learn from what you read? What other ways do you get close to a good piece of writing?