How to read – actively

I’d never considered the concept of ‘active reading’ until I received my latest copy of Writing Magazine (I recommend subscribing if you’re a writer, btw). On the letters to the editor page is a letter from a lady who, as an aspiring writer, knows that reading is a great way to learn how to write (Absolutely!). What she questions is how to read ‘actively’. That is, how to read in a way that you notice whether the book is written in first or third person, what tense it’s in, and so on.

Of course, if you’re not trying to be a writer, the best way to read is probably, well, just to read, without being consciously aware of tenses, point of view, etc. However, if you are looking for trends, tendencies in genre, and the like, then active reading is definitely worth a go.

Here’s how.

  1. Enjoy. First and foremost, reading should be for enjoyment. So, rather than becoming obsessed with technicalities, read the book with your active reader button switched off. If you liked the book, switch the button on and read it a second time (you can skim this time) and try to answer the following questions…
  2. Tense. Is it present tense?
    e.g. I slap his face so hard my hand stings, then turn and run away.

    Or past tense?
    e.g. I slapped his face so hard it made my hand sting, then turned and ran away.

    What affect on the story does the tense have? How does it make you, as a reader, feel? Why do you think the author chose to work in that tense? In what way would the story be different if the author had chosen the other tense?
  3. Person. Is the book written in the first (I), second (you – this is very rare, especially in full-length novels) or third (she) person?

    How does the person choice affect the reader’s relationship with the characters? Would the story feel different if it were written in a different person?
  4. Dialogue. Approximately what percentage of the book is written in dialogue (where the characters are speaking)?

    Dialogue increases pace. Would you have appreciate more or less dialogue? Which parts of the book did you enjoy most – the sections with dialogue in, or the sections with narrative (story-telling) in? Take a look at the sections mainly made up of narrative. Why do you think the author chose to use narrative in these sections? Could they have used dialogue instead and, if so, how would this have impacted the story?
  5. Dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are the bits that come after the closing speech mark.

    E.g. “I love you,” he said
    “You love me?”
    “Yes, that’s what I said,” he muttered into his collar.
    “I see.”
    “Is that all you have to say on the matter?”
    “What did you want me to say?”
    He shook his head and sighed. “Never mind. Don’t worry about it.”

    You may notice in the passage above the lack of tags as well as the inclusion of them. When reading your book actively, ask yourself why the author might have chosen to use tags when she/he did, and why they might have chosen to leave them out.

    Would more tags have helped – are there any parts of dialogue where it is unclear which character is speaking? Or, do the tags sometimes get in the way; is there too much ‘he said / she said’?
  6. Description. By this I mean descriptions of people and places. Highlight the areas where the description is most intense. In your opinion, do these add to the story in a positive way, or is reading these bits more of a struggle?

    Why do you think the author chose to spend longer describing these people/places? If they hadn’t, would the lack of description have impacted the story for the better or the worse?
  7. Character idiosyncrasies. Choose a character in the book (not the main one) and flick through for where that character features. Read those sections carefully. Do you notice any speech patterns or gestures common to that character, which the author chooses to repeat?

    E.g. Perhaps a character calls everyone ‘duck’ or has a hair-flicking habit. Whatever it is, why do you think the reader has chosen those traits and reminds the reader of them? Does it help you understand or get to know that character better, or do you find it annoying?

There are many other elements of writing you can actively read for and ask yourself what motivated the author to make their choices, and how they impact you as a reader. Things to look out for include:

  • Humour – does the author use it?
  • The use of adjectives, or – more importantly – lack of them (remember show don’t tell). E.g. He strode purposefully, she laughed gleefully.
  • Senses. How often does the author mention smells and sounds?
  • Which are your favourite passages and why?

Finally, when you’ve repeated this exercise with several books, see if you can see commonalities within and across genres. Do thrillers tend to be in the first person, present tense, whereas romances are in the third person, past tense, for example?

Once you’ve tried actively reading several books and answering the questions above, plus any others you may wish to pose yourself, you should feel more confident in giving your own writing a try.

Remember – just because someone else uses a particular style, that doesn’t mean you have to, but ase a practised active reader, you will be all the more aware of how your choices affect your readers’ relationships with your story and your characters.

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