Writing Lessons: Reading as a Writer

** So I may be starting a series(ish) on writing. We’ll see how this goes. I don’t have a particular day of the week or length of time in mind. But posts titled Writing Lessons will be about different things I’ve learned from living a writer’s life. 

You guys know that I am an avid reader. I absolutely love to read for pleasure. But I’m finding that I’m also beginning to read with a writer’s eye.

I was looking through my Good Reads bookshelf recently, and I noticed that the way I am rating books has changed. Typically I reserve 5 stars for an absolute favorite. I give 4 stars to books that are really, really good, 3 stars to books that are pretty good, and 2 or less to books that I just didn’t really like.

But I noticed that I gave Americanah, one of the books I read last summer,  5 stars, even though I didn’t consider one of my favorite reads of the summer. I actually named another book by the same author, Purple Hibiscus, as my favorite read of the summer. But I only gave the book 4 stars on Good Reads.

So here’s the thing: I think I’m starting to rate books based on writer’s craft. I think that Americanah is an extremely well-written book with a subject matter (racism) that is highly interesting, controversial, and challenging. I think the characters are well-written, especially the main character, who exposes who she is both through her telling of the story and through her alter ego blog persona. I also think the plot is compelling, realistic, and multi-layered enough to keep momentum. But I am not ready to count it as a favorite because its subject matter is so difficult and complex, and honestly there were some really eye-opening things that I am not sure I (as a white person) am ready to confront in my own life. When I finished the book, I thought, “Okay, I need to read that again. But I need a little time first.” It was one of those books that challenged me so much that it almost hurt, I guess you could say. However, I truly believe it is a well-crafted book. So I gave it 5 stars.

Another book I did that with was Lit by Mary Karr. I wrote in my review that “Someone said that Mary Karr can’t write a boring sentence, and I agree. She never uses a cliche, and every sentence is a surprise. Her ability to seamlessly move back and forth between past tense and present tense narrative is amazing. Karr is always aware that she is retelling a story that is separated from her by the distance of time. She is never self-loathing, but also never proud; she simply drops you in the midst of her self-awareness at the time.” Though the subject matter of this memoir interested me (she chronicles her alcoholism and eventual journey to faith), what struck me most about this book was the craft. And though I don’t know that this book counts as an “absolute favorite,” I gave it 5 stars.

But I’ve also noticed that sometimes I give 5 stars simply because a book was a page turner. I recently started the Cinder series, and I gave the first book, Cinder, a 5. I read the book in 24 hours and really enjoyed the world-building and plot of the book. Now, the book was fairly predictable, but overall I thought it had a super plot and was a great read. Then I read the second book in the series, Scarlet, and was disappointed. Though some new, interesting characters were introduced, the plot really did not move forward in any way. Nothing in Cinder’s (the main character’s) storyline changed or moved. So I only gave the book 3 stars.

However, when I read reviews of others, most of them liked Scarlet better and said that the first book, Cinder, was too predictable. I stand by my rating, though, because I think that Cinder has a better plot than Scarlet. So sometimes I am giving a book 5 stars because it has a great story that keeps my attention more than because it displays writer’s “craft.”

A writer friend of mine, Susan Cushman, wrote a blog post recently about technique versus storytelling, saying, “Writing workshops teach you to focus on technique. But a good writing teacher will also tell you that without a great story—and one that keeps you moving forward for the duration of the book—your novel will bore readers.”

As a writer who is new to writing fiction, I think that a balance of both a great story and attention to craft are important. But as a reader, how do I go about judging books? Do I judge them merely by entertainment quality, or do I judge them by storytelling, or do I judge them by technique? I feel like reading as a reader and reading as a writer are two different things, and I want to be fair to the writers whose books I am reading. I want to be able to take off my snooty writer spectacles and just sit back and enjoy books. But I also want to learn from really good writing and figure out what makes a good book work.

I know that the line between reader and writer blurs easily for me. So maybe the answer is simply following my gut when it comes to rating books, but being specific in my reviews about why I am rating them that way.

Are you a reader? A writer? Both? What would you suggest?



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  1. I think I am a reader 🙂 I enjoy writing (I NEED it), but I think that (at least for now) when I read books, articles, or blogs I just let the words take me on whatever adventure the author is on. I bet if I taught ESL, I’d be slightly more aware of technique 😉 Thanks for the blog!

  2. Karla Wardlow says:

    I am finding the same thing! Since I have been writing more consistently I am reading in much different ways. For one, total writer’s jealousy when I am reading a good book. I am constantly thinking things like “Oh I love how she described that. I would never think to spend so much time on that and yet it adds so much to understanding the feeling of the place.” I think that teaches me so much! I might not start describing everything all the sudden, that is not how I write, BUT I do start paying more attention to details. I also notice bad writing, though. And you are right – it is more acceptable if the story is good. I think to be honest this is the hope I am holding onto right now. If my story is good maybe people will forgive me if I am not a great writer!! LOL 🙂

    • I am trying to turn my writer’s jealousy into learning. I will always deal with jealousy, but I really want to figure out how people like Rainbow Rowell and John Green make their books so good!! And then copy what they do. 🙂 Actually my writing prof used to tell me that’s what great writers do. Find a writer they like and try to copy them, and then in the process, you build some technique but eventually find your own voice. I think you ARE a great writer, and what I read of your manuscript a long time ago was really cool and intriguing!!

  3. Awya says:

    Hi Karissa,

    I can totally relate to this. In fact beyond a point it got too overwhelming for me to even keep a goodreads account!

    As we grow as writers, our naivete with respect to the technicalities of writing fade out and that is definitely not a good thing when you just want to relax with a book you’ve been wanting to read on a Sunday afternoon! 😛 I find it really hard to shut the critical voice that journeys with me through the reading. And nowadays it is completely up to the writer to hook me in. As far as judging goes, I have a concrete result because if I find myself at the end of a book it scored well story-wise and craft-wise. Maybe I am losing out on experiencing some books but that’s just a price that I’ve grown to accept( I think).

    Thank you for this stimulating post. For a book nerd it was delightful to read 🙂

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