Monday, September 30, 2013

Useful Habits: Tool #43 Read for both form and content.

. . . Examine the machinery beneath the text.

"If you piece together a puzzle, you benefit from the image on the box.  If you try a new recipe, it helps to see a photo of the finished dish.  If you work with wood, you need to know the difference between a bookcase and a credenza.  The writer must answer this question: what am I trying to build?  And then this one: what tools do I need to build it?
     Whenever I take a big step in my writing, I begin by reading.  Of course, I read for content.  If I'm writing about anti-Semitism, I read Holocaust memoirs.  If I'm writing about AIDS, I read bio-medical texts and social histories of the disease.  If I'm writing about World War II, I read magazines from the 1940's.  So, by all means, read for content.

     But also read for form, for genre.  If you want to write better photo captions, read old issues of LIFE magazine.  If you want to become a better explainer, read a great cookbook.  If you want to write clever headlines, read the big city tabloids.  If you want to write a screenplay about a super hero, read stacks of comic books.  If you want to write witty short features, read The Talk of the Town in New Yorker magazine. . .

     When you find you can't put a story down, you should put the story down.  Put it down and think about how it works. What magic did the writer conjure to propel you from paragraph to paragraph, page to page, chapter to chapter? I call such an act X-ray reading. . ."

Roy then goes on to give examples.  Here are three:

  • Sample--for free--a wide selection of current magazines and journals in bookstores that sell coffee.
  • Read on topics outside your discipline, such as architecture, astronomy, economics, and photography.
  • Read with a pen nearby.  Write in the margins.  Talk back to the author.  Mark interesting passages.  Ask questions of the text.

Along with those suggestions, try this tool from Roy's WORKSHOP:

--Find an author to admire.  Read several works by this writer with a pen in hand.  Mark passages that work in special ways.  Show these to a friend and X-ray them together.  What writing tools did you find?

This was another chapter tidbit from Roy Peter Clark's book, "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer," published by Little, Brown and Company. You can find a copy here.

Next week, tune in for Tool #44: Save string. . .For big projects, save scraps others would toss.

Sounds like good advice!  Can't believe we have only 7 more tools to go. . .I hope you are finding these posts helpful.  Do you struggle with a certain aspect of the writer's craft?  If so, let me know what it is in the comments below.  It will aid me in deciding what book to concentrate on next.


  1. "When you find you can't put a story down, you should put the story down. Put it down and think about how it works." I love that advice.

  2. I do too, Lynda. . .such simple advice, but brilliant!


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Journey into the Promised Land

Journey into the Promised Land
From Egypt to Israel