Learning to Read Like a Writer
by Pamela Little
A few years ago, my eldest son wrote a poem to let his father know how special he was. When my son read his final draft to me, I could see from his face that his writing was not doing what he had hoped. The poem had a nice rhythm, but it didn't do the work of showing how important his father was to him; I couldn't see his dad in what he had written.
Looking back, I know that he was using all the poetic devices at his disposal at the timerhythm and rhyme, one classic framing linebut something crucial was missing. If I had it to do over again, I would share with him Eloise Greenfield's book Honey, I Love, and Other Love Poems (1986). Together we would study how Greenfield expresses love by giving specific examples about the beloved. Then I'd ask my son to make a list of specific things he loved about his fatherand start a new draft of his poem from there.
Though learning to write from writers is a new concept in the field of education, professional writers have always done it. Interviews with and articles by well-known children's and young adult writers such as Katherine Paterson and Patricia Polacco attest to the fact that writers hone their craft by reading others' works.
The How of Writing
The writing gurus insist that young people should be encouraged to write about what really matters to them. I would add that their writing also needs to convey their passion for their subject. They need help with the how, not just the what, of their writing. Normally, when we read, we focus on what the writer is saying. When we read like writers, however, we focus on how the writer is saying it: the techniques the writer is using and how they contribute to meaning.
In her book Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom (1999), Katie Wood Ray describes this process using the example of her seamstress friend:
Because my friend is a seamstress, she goes to the mall or to the dress shops differently than the rest of us who aren't seamstresses. First, it takes her a lot longer than a normal person to make her way through the store. She turns the dresses and jumpers and shirts inside out, sometimes sitting right on the floor to study how something is made. While the rest of us mere shoppers are looking at sizes and prices, my friend is looking closely at the inseams and stitching and "cuts on the bias." She wants to know how what she sees was made, how it was put together. . . . After a day at the mall, she goes home with a head full of new ideas for what she might make next on her trusty sewing machine.
Young writers in a library or bookstore are like the seamstress in the dress shop. They gather ideas from text to text about writing techniques. Helping inexperienced writers to write well means helping them attend to the craft of writing. By showing young writers how to attend carefully to another writer's story or poem, as the seamstress attends to a dress in the shop, writing teachers create craft apprenticeships between the published author and their students. They teach inexperienced writers to see how writing is done, opening up a huge warehouse of strategies for effective writing.
How does a writer learn to write from other writers? The learning can take the form of simple imitation; a young writer could do worse than to pick up the exact technique used by a favorite author. At best, though, learning to write from other writers is a sophisticated gathering, from many different texts, of both explicit and inexplicit technical knowledge about the craft of writing.
Your role is to help young people see themselves as writers and find appropriate professional mentors. You need to be able to say to that young writer, "Pick up that book by Eloise Greenfield. Let's look at the strategies that she used as a writer and learn to use some of those strategies ourselves."
In order to bring a child and a mentoring author together, you need both to understand what the child is trying to do in writing and to have a firm knowledge of authors who might serve that young writer. Reading and conferring with young writers will help you gain knowledge of their work. To have a selection of possible mentor-authors at your fingertips, you must read a variety of authors in different genres to expand your repertoire of texts that exemplify a range of techniques. Pull together a few colleagues to study children's books together. You will not only build your knowledge base but also increase your confidence in your ability to help young writers.
Slow Down the Reading
To learn from a master craftsperson, young writers need to know what they should be looking for in the work. Start by helping children slow down and read deliberately. Focus on only one or two aspects of the piece of writing.
Young people may find it easiest to start with a focus on ideastechnically part of the what of writing, but you can look together at how as you examine what the piece is about. How does the writer reveal the main idea? What details does the writer use? How does the writer's choice of ideas affect the reader?
Organization refers to the order of the ideas and the way the writer moves from one idea to the next. What kind of lead does the writer use to make us want to read more? What kind of ending does the writer use to make the writing feel finished and give us something to think about? In what order do the different ideas or events come? How does the writer transition from one idea to the next?
Voice is the verbal expression of the writer's personality. How does the writer demonstrate his or her passion for the topic? What techniques does the writer use to reveal emotions? How does the writer put his or her personality into the piece?
Word choice is the selection of particular words and phrases to express ideas. An easy way to look at word choice is to make a list of all the words and phrases the writer uses to refer to the same thing, or a list of all the verbs in the piece. What words and phrases does the writer choose to make the writing specific and memorable? Does the writer use specific techniques such as simile, metaphor, or hyperbole?
Sentence fluency is the rhythm and flow of the language, how the writing sounds when read aloud. What kinds of sentence constructions does the writer use? Does the writer use "sound effects" such as alliteration, rhyme, or rhythm?
Whether you're reading alone, with colleagues, or with children, reading like a writer always means slowing down to look at the how as well as the what of the writing.
For further reading on reading like a writer, I recommend Frank Smith's Joining the Literacy Club (1988).