A closer look at reading

Monday, July 31, 2017
Emily Bitto

Emily Bitto seated
Emily Bitto

We turn to reading to learn all kinds of things, but what about reading to learn to write? Ahead of her workshop, we caught up with author and tutor Emily Bitto to find out why close reading is an essential part of learning the writer's craft.

What's the difference between reading as a writer and reading as, well, a reader?

Essentially, they are very different processes with almost opposite aims. When we read in the way we normally do it – for pleasure – we want the prose to sort-of wash over us, to envelop and immerse us in the world of the narrative. The last thing we want to be thinking about is how the author went about plotting or structuring the narrative, or how they determined the way they would set out dialogue on the page, for example. If our attention is drawn to these technical elements in our normal reading it is usually a bad sign: we notice the artifice of the prose because there is something clunky or ineffective about it. When one reads as a writer, however, the explicit aim is to read closely and analytically in order to try to work out how the author has gone about employing and manipulating the technical elements of fiction to achieve certain effects. The aim is to isolate, understand, learn from, perhaps even replicate, these technical elements of the prose. Often this process involves a close focus on just one element, for example point-of-view (to pick just one of many possible examples), and we may read whole chapters in this way and pay little or no attention to what is actually happening in the narrative itself.

It's sometimes said that study can ruin your enjoyment of a text, but close reading can also enhance your appreciation for the writer's work. How do you balance enjoyment with learning?

For me, it’s about compartmentalizing; making sure that I don’t always read in this analytical way, but allow myself plenty of reading for pleasure too. Fortunately it’s much harder to read as a writer, and our learned default is to just slip back into letting the text wash over us, so there’s not much danger of losing the pleasure of that kind of reading. Reading as a writer is also best done, I find, with texts that I’ve already read before, and that I go back to specifically to read in this more focused way because I know that they do something particularly well – create character, for example, or atmosphere – and I want to try to work out how they do it.

What can you learn from reading that you can't learn another way?

I think it’s only through reading (and reading a lot) that we gain a really deep, almost unconscious understanding of narrative. If you think, for example, of someone trying to write a romance novel without ever having read one… You could learn a lot through being told the key elements of romance, and then through the trial and error of trying to write one yourself, but to go away and read twenty, or fifty, romance novels, I think allows you to absorb and assimilate the key elements of the genre in a way you can’t otherwise do, and in a way that will ultimately make you a better writer.

What are the best techniques you've gained from reading?

I’ve learned most of what I know about writing from reading (as well as through practicing it, of course). I studied literature, not creative writing, before becoming a writer, and those years of reading, constantly and widely and closely, stood me in good stead when I came to try to write my first novel. I’ve used the techniques of ‘reading as a writer’ to actively teach myself how to write dialogue, how to render the passage of time, how different points-of-view work, how to structure a scene… so many things! It’s also a constant process that will continue for the rest of my reading and writing life. But it’s empowering to know that, when I’m struggling with something in my writing, all the tools and techniques I need to understand whatever it is, and to work out how to do it better, are right there on my bookshelf.

About Emily Bitto

Emily Bitto’s debut novel 'The Strays', was the winner of the 2015 Stella Prize, and has been published in the UK, the US, and Canada. She has a Masters in Literary Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. She has been a sessional lecturer, tutor and supervisor in literary studies and creative writing since 2007. Emily also co-owns and runs Carlton wine-bar, Heartattack and Vine.