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Posted, Jan. 25, 2005
Updated, Jan. 25, 2005

QuickLink: A76919

Writing Tool #41: X-Ray Reading
Reading others' work can help make you a better writer.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Read for both form and content.

By the third grade, I knew I was a good reader. My teacher, Miss Kelly, told me so. She was impressed, she said, that I could recognize the word 'gigantic' in a story about Davy Crockett, who killed 'a gigantic bear.' Why, then, did it take me 20 more years to imagine that I was a writer?

Perhaps it's because we teach and learn reading as a democratic craft -- necessary for education, vocation and citizenship -- but writing as a fine art. Everyone should read, we say, but we act as if only those with special talent should write.

One thing we know for sure. Writers read for both form and content. If you put together a puzzle, you benefit from the image on the box. If you try a new recipe, it helps to see a picture of the finished dish. If you are a carpenter, 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?


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In literature, the word that describes the form of a story is 'genre.' In the words of reading scholar Frank Smith, the reader learns not only the grammar of language but also the grammar of stories. Children perceive story forms from an early age. If they hear the words "once upon a time," they predict a fairy tale.

Whenever I try to 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 biomedical texts and social histories of the disease. If I'm writing about World War II, I read magazines from the 1940s. So, by all means, read for content.

But also read for form. 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 witty short features, read Talk of the Town in The New Yorker magazine.

When it occurred to me that I wanted to write a long serial narrative in short chapters, I began searching for models. I read some Dickens, whose work was serialized. I read "Winesburg, Ohio," a series of connected short stories by Sherwood Anderson. I read "The Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor," a serialized newspaper story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In all these cases, the chapters were too long. Ironically, I found my pattern in the adventure stories of my youth. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries had chapters I could read in about five minutes or less, with a mini-cliffhanger at the end. That structure became the blueprint for my "Three Little Words."

Everyone should read, we say, but we act as if only those with special talent should write. My friend Tom French may be the best reader among the reporters I know. The power of his nonfiction serial narratives derives in part from his expansive reading, from the Tarzan adventures of his childhood to the 20 volumes of British sea tales written by Patrick O'Brian. Tom says he has always been alert to those parts of a story that made him want to keep reading. What causes the effect, he wonders, of not being able to put the story down? When he hits such a spot he marks it, returns to it, and reflects upon the techniques used by the writer.

I call such an act "X-ray reading." One way writers learn from stories is to use their X-ray vision. (After all, Superman was also a newspaper reporter.) X-ray reading helps you see through the text of the story. Beneath the surface grinds the invisible machinery of grammar, language, syntax and rhetoric, the gears of making meaning, the hardware of the trade.

Here are some reading tricks offered by good writers:

  1. Read to listen to the voice of the writer.
  2. Read the newspaper in search of under-developed story ideas.
  3. Read online to experience a variety of new storytelling forms.
  4. Read entire books when they are compelling; but also taste lots of little parts of books.
  5. In choosing what to read, depend more upon your compass than upon the advice of others.
  6. Sample -- for free -- a wide selection of current magazines and journals in bookstores that serve coffee.
  7. Read on topics outside your discipline, such as architecture, astronomy, economics or photography.

I temper my enthusiasm for reading with this caution: There will be times in the middle of a writing project when you may want to stop reading. While describing these tools, I stopped reading books about writing. I did not want my fascination with the topic to seduce me from my writing time. I did not want to be unduly influenced by the ideas of others. Nor did I wish to be discouraged by the brilliance of finished, published work.

Finally, read with a pen nearby. Write in the margins. Talk back to the author. Mark up interesting passages. Ask questions of the text. Scholars, such as Louise Rosenblatt, argue that reading is a ménage à trois among author, text and reader. The author may create the text, but the reader turns it into a story.

So the reader is a writer after all. Voilà!

Bug - Writer's Toolbox

1. Go to Borders or Barnes & Noble and immerse yourself in the magazine section. Drink as much coffee as you need. Look for publications that stretch your interest and challenge your standards.

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

3. Try a trick taught to me by Chip Scanlan. Read an interesting passage aloud. Then put it away and write freely on any topic of your choosing. Explore the kind of influence that flows from this experiment.

4. A sad little secret of the journalism world is that some reporters don't even read their own newspaper. Take the opposite approach. For a week read the paper voraciously, including the classified ads. Make a list of all the story ideas you discover.

5. If you are an editor, use a shared reading experience to inspire your writers. Swap stories you like and X-ray read them. Why do they work?  

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