Reading for better writing


When we read a text, we respond in a certain way and, if the author has constructed his text effectively, in a way that will meet at least some of his intentions. This applies to both literary texts and formal discussions of them, though the strategies employed to achieve the reader response will differ considerably.

One observation needs to be made: there is no one single “right” way of organising a text. An author could approach the same task in many different ways. Each text, even though following certain conventions of writing, will also depend for its structure on the author’s intention, the target readership and the type of content or information the author wants to convey.

Analysing how other writers achieve their goals can contribute significantly to our becoming more accomplished writers. Understanding what successful writers DO – what strategies they use – helps us to employ these strategies as well and to discover our own approaches to achieve our own authorial aims.

You might like to use the following questions as a guideline to reflect on other people’s writing more systematically. The questions are largely aimed at considering more formal writing, so some of them might not apply so rigidly to literary work.

  1. Who is the text addressing?
  2. What assumptions are made about the readership?
  3. What is the aim/motivation of the author?
  4. What type of text is it?
  5. Describe the nature and tone of the language used.
  6. What strategies of language play does the author use? How does this correspond with and underline the author’s intention (i.e. the message she is trying to get across)?
  7. Look at the way quotation and reference is used, if at all. Why is it done in this way?
  8. Examine the way in which the transitions between the ideas are achieved from thought to thought, line to line, and from paragraph to paragraph (or stanza to stanza). What strategies are used?
  9. Compare the beginning and the end. Do they complement each other?
  10. In what ways does the text fulfil/fail to fulfil your criteria for “good writing”?
  11. What other constraints apart from those above might also be at play here (e.g. number of words allowed, space or shape constraints, co-text)?

Just to give you an example of ways of analysing a text, here is an essay I looked at with my advanced German students of English. The essay was written to analyse the play Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, which was being performed by The Hamburg Players in Hamburg, Germany. The students analysed the way the text had been structured and one of them produced a mindmap outlining the ideas and the linking strategies. Her mindmap is below the essay text. Click on the text to get a larger view.

Mindmap by Mareike BeckerMindmap by Mareike Becker

© Cate Kimberley and Word and Affect, 2012

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8 thoughts on “Reading for better writing

  1. Lovely Post! As an avid reader and writer, understanding those questions will definitely improve my writing techniques. Should this work for all types of writing, even fiction?

    Adieu, Scribbler

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    1. Using the questions to help you think about fiction will help you, too. But I think for literary genres it is essential to focus on the features that are not overt, the strategies of formulation rather than the content. By that I mean it is helpful to focus on how a writer conveys an effect or elicits a response without stating it in words. We readers respond to the feel of the words, often without knowing why. But you can deciphre how a writer has achieved this by looking for the clues that prompted your response. If you click on the keyword “Musings” at the right you will see other my posts about this. Good luck with your writing!

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  2. This is a very good tip! As a translator, we were always told to read,read and read some more. Everything from The Economist to a children’s book. It teaches you so much more than any ‘how to translate’ or ‘how to write’ book. Loved the mind map with the German students! Good tips for getting a ‘real feel’ for language itself.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to respond! I think what you say about a “real feel” is very important. Often readers respond to elements in a text that are not directly content related, and our aim as writers (and translators!) is to capture that style level that picks up the reader. Happy writing!

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