How to Read a Story
The main thing I have learned since I’ve started my graduate school program in fiction writing is there is a heck of a lot of stuff I should have learned before I started my graduate school program in fiction writing. In nine weeks of my second semester, I don’t think we’ve made it through a single workshop without my professor (who so happens to be the program director) stopping class to teach us something she can’t believe we didn’t learn in high school.
Which is kind of absurd.
And so I’m going to make a few assumptions about the Writing Gooder audience. First, I’m going to assume that everyone here is at least a little interested in being a better writer (which includes being both a better reader and a better critical mind). Second, I’m going to assume everybody had, has, or will have the same crap high school education I (according to my very wise, very intelligent professor) apparently had.
Perhaps the most important thing I could have learned from graduate school so far is, actually, something I kind of already knew but didn’t actually know how to execute. How we read the work of others, whether it’s from a professional author or someone in our writing communities, is vitally important to the way we learn about writing craft and the way we try to help others improve their writing craft. When we read professional work, we need to understand that the author knows what they’re doing and try to figure out what exactly they’re doing that makes them so good. When we read the work of young, growing writers we need to read with a sense of what they’re trying to do and help them better achieve that goal. Simple in theory, but how do you actually put that into practice?
Well, according to my professor, there are 3 ways we ought to read the work of others:
- Read meticulously
- Read professionally
- Read optimistically
What we’re meant to do as graduate students is, more or less, read like writers. Now, I don’t hardly expect the average reader of this blog to want or hope or need to start reading like a graduate student. But there are so many ways that these three things can factor into everyone’s reading routine.
Read meticulously. Basically, read closely. Pay attention to the things the writer is doing. Are they shifting points of view? Do they switch back and forth between moments in time? Is there a lot of narration (“telling”) and not a lot of scene (“showing”)? Take note of the devices the writer is using, and try to figure out why the writer has chosen these devices, what effect they’re creative, and whether or not it works for the story.
Read professionally. This one’s simple: read with respect. Especially when it comes to critiquing the work of others, it’s important to give them the same respect for their art that you would want someone else to show your art. No one is here to tear anybody else down, especially when we’re all just learning.
Read optimistically. This one is hard, especially when a writer seems to be doing everything wrong. Reading with optimism means that we’re reading under the impression that everything the author is doing has been done on purpose. A story is ninety percent “telling” and ten percent “showing”? They meant to do that. Every paragraph is a new flashback? Intentional. This doesn’t, of course, mean that we can’t tell a writer what they’re doing doesn’t work. What it means is we take a moment to understand what the writer is trying to do with their story. This allows us as readers to give better advice, because we can show the writer why their choices don’t work based on what’s actually in the text of the story (back to that reading meticulously!) and not based on our personal aesthetic or how we think stories ought to be written. It also allows us to better appreciate the work of professional writers even if it’s written in a way we might not write ourselves.
These three things massively changed the way that I view fiction writing, and the way that I approach critiquing the works of others. (Of course, this can all apply to poetry as well, but I’m unfortunately not as knowledgeable in that arena and would hate to pass down advice on it.) The hardest part of working with other writers is being objective, setting aside our own opinions to better help a writer achieve their goals. In the end, though, trying to force everyone into the same box of how we want stories to be written (i.e. how we would write stories) isn’t doing anybody any favors.