Read Like A Writer – Collect Words. Collect Sentences.

Collect Words, Collect SentencesWhen you’re tucked into one of your guilty pleasure books, how conscious are you? How do you read? For me, after a few paragraphs my eyes switch off, my mind opens up the words disappear and I begin to see watch the book unfold. For me, reading is exactly the same as watching TV, it feels like I visit Neverland with Peter, or the Discworld with Rincewind, or any other of the infinite worlds in books. But I am trying to be mindful, and be a collector of sentences and excerpts.

Collect Words

How do you read? What happens to you?

Drifting off into another world when reading might be wonderful for the joy of the story. But it presents significant problem for me if I want to learn anything from the author.

When you read, are you reading as a reader or a writer? I always read as a reader. Allowing myself to be completely absorbed, to feel what the characters feel, smile at their wins and cry over their losses. But how do you stay consciousness enough to pick out the points you can learn from and still read like a reader?

There are the obvious things all readers like:

  • Gritty multi-layered characters with hopes, dreams and faults.
  • Characters being tested to their limits
  • Pace – enough to keep you interested
  • Story arc and a climax
  • A statisfying ending
  • Some kind of antagonist or bad guy
  • An absorbing world

There are more, but you get my point. I don’t want to write a blog post telling anyone to suck eggs, or whatever the phrase it. These points are standard. It’s the more subtle things that I want to learn from. The nuances, the individual word choices in a sentence that give vivid imagery. Or the sentences that make me catch my breath and read faster, faster, faster because I just HAVE to know what happens. Or the actions a character takes that make me fall in love with them a little more.

There’s no magic to my method. I try to read a fraction slower than normal – hard if it’s a pacey book. I keep a pencil, highlighter or trusty index finger to hand depending on how I am reading. If on my kindle, then I use the highlighting function to highlight any I pick up. To ensure I keep buried in the book, I use my emotions as a flag system. If I smile, I check myself – why did I smile, a quick scramble back through the previous paragraph and hey presto, I just learnt a new trick. If I find myself scanning faster and faster, feeling desperate to just know, then I do the same. If I cry, if I feel anything, I stop and try and identify why.

Some of these might seem odd given you wont have any of the few hundred pages of context I had. But I thought it would be helpful to share some of the things I highlighted from the last book I read (End of Days):

End of Days

  1. ‘…can see the frustration stiffening the lines of his shoulders.’

Why did I highlight it? I guess because it painted wonderful images, in one sentence I knew exactly how he felt, and what it did to his body, I saw and felt the emotion.

  1. ‘I put my hand over my mouth to keep from calling him.’

That’s the protagonist speaking, and a display of physical action showing her innocent love for the male lead. I thought it was so sweet an innocent and a beautifully honest depiction of what a teen might do to stop herself from calling out to the boy and admitting something she didn’t want to.

  1. ‘The October wind tugs at my hair. Dry leaves float by, lost and abandoned.’

As I admitted in my post describing my writing process I’m still developing my ability to do description. This is a great example of weaving atmospheric description into the story – plus it gives away a piece of description about the protagonist too – which can be difficult when writing in the first person.

Some questions from me to you, I would love to know the answers to:

  1. What do you naturally pick up on when you read your favourite stories?
  2. Why are they your favourite, as a writer why do you appreciate them?
  3. Do you collect and highlight pieces of text? If not, do you do something else to gather your favourite excerpts or ‘lessons’?

49 comments

    1. Hi Rosie, me too, I think its the same for a lot of people – the character are what draw you in and keep you there as piece by piece they give you just a little more to keep you turning pages 🙂

  1. Great post! I think what draws me into the books I read are the characters. I love watching them develop overtime and handle certain situations. They’re like my friends and I love watching them grow. I appreciate that as a writer because I want the same for my own characters, who are not only my friends but are my babies.

    As for highlighting text, I don’t really do that. I have been picking a favorite line from each book I read for my reviews. Sometimes it’s hard to pick one.

    1. Me and you both, and most of the people who commented get drawn in by the characters. I completely agree about feeling like they are friends. I love and hate that feeling of loss when you finish a series of books.

      interesting – how do you remember where your fave line is?

  2. I dont do that because I get too wrapped up in the story. I always think I will go back at the end and pull out bits that I like, but I never do because I always move straight on to the next book. I do however use bits from songs lyrics I like. I dont know why. I guess some songs are like poetry, they just touch your soul.

    1. They do. I do it too with song lyrics – when I pick them up which is unusual as I don’t hear lyrics very easily. But when I do they are always so Inspiring.

      1. You know if you want to learn more about scene setting and description, you should read any of the old English classics. Yes they go overboard and the language is a bit flowery, but they really do it well.

          1. Lol! I love them, and they are all in the public domain so you can download them for free. Ill get you a list of my faves and send you links. And btw, they are all great stories. We think they are painful cos we were forced to read and disect them at school, which is enough to spoil any book for anyone! I still cant think of Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry without shuddering!

          2. Ha! I’ve tried reading classics SOOOOOO many times. I just find them so slow. Victim of pace me. Cant help myself. I do wonder if I will have the same reaction to them as I did with Shakespeare – now I am that bit older maybe I will appreciate them more.

  3. I love interesting characters and relationships, sometimes, but not always the more dysfunctional and eccentric the better. But that just with novels. I enjoy biographies, autobiographies and non-fiction too. I rarely mark passages in novels, and only in biographies and non-fiction if I want to remember or refer to them later. Oftentimes I will mark with a sticky note, sometimes with a pencil, and only with a highlighter in nonfiction texts that demand I recall the information. Generally speaking, I don’t like to mark my books at all. I do love words and imagery and may make a mental note of something that I find outstanding, a turn of phrase that really appeals for its unique insight. The last book I recall remarking to myself over and over about the beauty of the language was Peter Carey’s “His Illegal Self”.

    1. Ah ha. I agree. I was taught never to damage a book because they are precious and hold precious information. But as the years have passed – university and the necessity to remember information and my ageing brain slowly demanded that I mark books – only ever in fine pencil though so it could be rubbed out – and always with a piece of paper or sticky note so I could find it. I just happen to mostly read on a kind now – so the highlighting function is all to easy to just mark and move on. I shall have to have a look at that book. Thanks for the pointer 🙂

        1. Yep. Well I use the kindle app on my iPad but I have a kindle and you can do the same thing. I prefer the function on my iPad though as you can highlight in different colours – so I do a positive and negative colour and there are a few others if you want more differentiation 😊

  4. Here are some of my fave classics, Sacha; Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte, Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austin, Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, – Thomas Hardy, David Copperfield – Charles Dickens, Silas Marner – George Elliot. You can download most of them for free because they’re all in the public domain, but you won’t find them all for free in one place. David Copperfield is currently free on Amazon, WH and P&P on the Gutenberg Project, P&P and JE on Kobo.

  5. I get so engrossed in the book I’m reading, I often forget to mark memorable phases and paragraphs. Later, I kick myself for not doing it. I don’t like to mark in a physical book, so I keep a pen and paper close by, and hope I don’t forget to use it.
    I love character-driven novels, so I am always looking for the special traits that make them memorable.

    1. Yeh I know what you mean about actually marking the page – feels like a sacrilege. Lucky for me I almost solely read on a kindle now – so highlighting can be removed without a trace – not that it matters on an ebook. but you know what I mean. I also love character driven books – Its like falling in love over and over every time you read another good book with a brilliant character 🙂

  6. I used to read just to get lost, but since I started writing I’ve been much more mindful—and appreciative–of sentences. I’ve been known to jot down a sentence or two…and will often pause to admire the way something is written—particularly creative ways of saying common things, like how someone feels or what something felt like. I love metaphors. I love adjectives. I love imagery. I’m tuned into how an author makes their writing come alive. 🙂

    1. Sounds like we experienced a similar sort of love for picking out the best bits of others work. Like you, I love a metaphor, and the way a good author portrays emotion – how its so different to anything else Ive read yet they are able to make it such a familiar feeling :). Do you think you have lost anything by being more mindful? or gained?

      1. Hmmm….I feel I’ve lost some of the abandon when reading for sure, but at least for now what I gain when I notice when something is written well is worth the trade off. 🙂

  7. I love stories that swallow me up to the point that I’m not aware of reading. Great characters will pull me in every time. At the same time, I am a word and phrase collector. I note unique ways that words are put together, which I can then apply more broadly to my work. My print books are highlighted and dog-eared. For ebooks, I have a notepad where I jot them down.

    1. Glad to have found another word and phrase collector :P. I find I learn so much from collecting them, Like Ali said – I also do the same with song lyrics. I also love a story that swallows me up 🙂 – thanks for reading.

  8. I love collecting words and sentences–both. The beauty with which some people can blend words–not the literary fiction beauty of Hemingway, more the cleverness of evoking a feeling from a collection of words–sometimes I just have to memorialize it in my list.

    1. Hi Jacqui – Did you used to have a page with lots of beautiful words on it? I was sure it was your blog – but when I just went to look I couldn’t find it, so maybe not. But I completely agree. Sometimes it’s beauty – other times it’s the evocative feeling the random combination gives me. The other thing I love is when they use such simple words and phrases but yet they mean so much more or can evoke a wealth of imagery. I love it when I find a sentence and think – damn I wish I wrote that! 🙂 thats when its a keeper and I store it away to learn from.

  9. Great post!
    I tend to read with a pencil nearby. If a particular expression or beautiful string of words catches my attention, I’ll underline it. I find reading makes me a better writer.

  10. Another great post 🙂 I think perhaps I do this subconsciously, though there will be moments where I will read and re-read a sentence simply because it is delicious. Maybe I should keep notes of them too…

  11. Love the idea of going beyond reading when absorbed into a good book; brilliant image, Sacha. I’ve never taken notes or squirreled away quote as you do. Maybe I’ve written down the odd word when i’ve not come across it before – ‘sussuration’ from William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms comes to mind as does ‘esurient’ from a translation of Kafka but that’s all. The Textiliste makes notes, mostly a whose who of characters but also other plot points and ideas. And she’s not the writer. Yet!

    1. sussuration…. thats a strange one, will google that. If you don’t see images – what happens when you read? Wow…. thats seriously devoted – she must be an amazing beta reader! lol maybe she will put down the textiles and pick up a pen…….?! or maybe not! :p

  12. Great post! When I read, I tend to have a pencil nearby for, as you say, collecting words and beautiful turns of phrases. I started doing this to learn and remember English words I didn’t know and it has turned into a bit of a literary obsession now.

  13. Wow. ..that was amazing. It is like you are taking a little baby bird and teaching it to fly. Thank you very much…. in Thai….
    Cabkoonka… deepest thank you.

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