Reading as a Writer.
To get the most benefit from the corrective reading you are going to do after these periodical inventories, you must take a little trouble to learn to read as a writer. Anyone who is at all interested in authorship has some sense of every book as a specimen, and not merely as a means of amusement. But to read effectively, it is necessary to learn to consider a book in the light of what it can teach you about the improvement of your own work.
Most would-be writers are bookworms, and many of them are fanatical about books and libraries. But there is often a deep distaste at the idea of dissecting a book, or reading it solely for style, or for construction, or to see how its author has handled his problems. Some feeling that one will never again get the bewitched, fascinated interest from any volume that one got as an uncritical, but appreciative, reader makes many a student-writer protest at the idea of putting his favorite authors under a microscope. As a matter of fact, when you have learned to read critically, you will find that your pleasure is far deeper than it was when you read as an amateur; even a bad book becomes tolerable when you are engaged in probing it for the reasons for its stiff, unnatural effects.
At first you will find that the only way to read as a writer is to go over everything twice. Read the story, article, or novel to be studied rapidly and uncritically, as you did in the days when you had no responsibility to a book but to enjoy it. When you have finished, put it aside for a while and take up a pencil and scratch pad.
Summary Judgment and Detailed Analysis.
First make a short written synopsis of what you have just read. Now pass a kind of summary judgment on it: you liked it, or didn’t like it. You believed it, or were left incredulous. You liked part of it, and disliked the rest. (You may, if you like later, pass a moral judgment on it, too, but now confine your decisions to what you believe were the author’s intentions, as far as you are able to discern them.)
Go on to enlarge on these flat statements. If you liked it, why did you? Don’t be discouraged if your answer to this is vague at first. You are going to read the book again, and will have another chance to see whether you can find the source of your response. If part of it seemed good to you and the rest weak, see whether you are able to tell when the author lost your assent. Were the characters drawn with uniform skill, badly drawn, or inconsistent only occasionally? Do you know why you felt this?
Do any of the scenes stand out in your mind? Because they were well done, or because an opportunity was so stupidly missed? Remember any passage which arrested your attention for any reason. Is the dialogue natural, or, if stylized, is the formality purposeful or a sign of the author’s limitations?
By this time you know some of your own weaknesses. How does the author you have just read handle situations which would be difficult for you?
The Second Reading.
If it is a good book, your list of questions should be long and searching, your answers particularized as much as possible. If it is not especially good, it will be enough at first, to find the weak spots in it and lay it aside.
When you have made your synopsis, and answered your own questions as far as possible, make a check against those you were not able to answer fully, or that seem to promise more enlightenment if you pursue them. Now start at the first word again, reading slowly and thoroughly, noting down your answers as they become plain to you. If you find any passage particularly well done, and especially if the author has used adroitly material which would be hard for you to handle, mark them. Later you can return to them and use them as models after further analysis.
You know now how the story ends; be on the watch for the clues to that ending which come early in the book or story. Where was the character trait that brings about the major complication first mentioned? Was it brought in smoothly and subtly, or lugged in by the ears? Do you find, on second reading, that there are false clues— passages which do not make the book more real, or which distort the author’s intention, but which have been allowed to pass although they introduce an unnecessary element or actually mislead the reader? Go over such passages carefully, to make sure that you are not missing the author’s full meaning, and be sure that you are right before concluding that the author was at fault.