Breaking It Down to Start It Up

 In college, I considered myself a good writer. I got mostly high Bs on papers, and I could come up with ideas quickly without much struggle. It wasn’t until I took a poetry class, however, that I really learned how to be a stronger writer. It didn’t happen through more writing, though. What my poetry teacher taught me was how to read.

Don’t get me wrong, I was an efficient reader. I could take in a lot of information quickly. I could get through 700 page novels in 4 days. But I was only reading for content or entertainment. I wasn’t taking any note of how those writers created their texts.

My poetry professor taught me to dissect (deconstruct would be the fancy academic term for this) a text and question how the writer created the effect that I either enjoyed or disliked. If I could figure out how someone created a setting that I could picture in my mind, for instance, I could break down the word choices, the sentence structure, the pacing of the lines, and the images that the writer used to create the scene. Then, I could emulate the style when I went to create a scene of my own. If I didn’t like it, I could figure out what was ineffective and avoid making the same mistakes in my own paper. And I didn’t just learn from professionally written published work. I learned from my classmates’ writing during peer review, too!

At first, I could only see that practice through the lens of “creative writing.” It wasn’t until grad school that I began to see how that same approach could be applied to more traditional academic writing. I saw that if I didn’t know how to write something like, let’s say, a literature review, my best bet was to read a ton of literature reviews from related fields. I could see how those literature reviews incorporated sources, connected ideas, how long they spent addressing each source or concept, and what types of language were used. I could use the same practice if I wanted to figure out how to submit an article for publication, asking myself what the commonly used terms in the journal were, how the authors in the journal were formatting their essays, and what styles of citation were used. Being able to break down forms and styles gives me the confidence to jump into writing, no matter what the task.

Now, I’m not saying that just because you know how to read like a writer, you will automatically be a great writer– it’s a hard skill to master and an even harder skill to apply—but it can really change how you approach writing for academic purposes. It’s no longer about filling in a formula; instead, writing becomes about the different choices a writer can make and figuring out the reasons why one would make those choices. It’s like being a painter and learning how to use more than one brush technique. Sure, you could paint by number and get a beautiful picture, but by learning to do it on your own, you can take risks and be more creative and ultimately get a product that represents your vision.

It’s been a few years since I learned the skill, and now, I am lucky enough to pass it down to my own students. In the process of teaching, I stumbled upon this great article by Michael Bunn called “How to Read like a Writer” If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend you check it out.


You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

1 Comment »

  • Janet Dengel says:

    It is amazing how we can learn about writing not only through reading but also through creativity. Poems teach students about writing because they evoke images, feelings, sounds, etc. I learned so many techniques that helped my writing by taking a film class. In film, every detail of a scene and the items chosen for it are well-thought out and have a reason. Sometimes when we read, we might think the writer is just filling space. But, actually, much like film, each word, sentence, and paragraph should be chosen for a reason. Even it’s length and punctuation add visually to the essay.


Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>