Reading Like a Writer Guide

Disclaimer: This was borrowed from Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, my writing mentor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.


Here’s a list of questions to ask yourself as you read the works for discussion and critique. These lines of inquiry will lead you past your surface reaction as a reader and into a more rigorous engagement with the craft issues at work in the prose.

Read an essay/chapter/story once for the content; then read it again with a pencil to make note of “how” these writers make literature out of experience.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What is the surface event or action driving the piece (horizontal plot)?
  • What larger issue or theme is the writer exploring (vertical plot)? What are the major themes? Are there any minor themes as well? Is there any kind of “subtext” to the story or essay? What kind of murmur runs below the surface?
  • Is there a central question, sense of yearning, or driving tension implied at the beginning? Do we have a clear sense what’s at stake? Do we know why the narrator is writing this particular piece at this particular time? Is there a paragraph or sentence – the “nut graph” – where the writer articulates the narrator’s motivation?
  • Which information is written in action, dialogue and vivid description? Which is summarized or compressed in time? Why?
  • What specific details stay in your mind? Why? How do these small details lead to larger ideas?
  • Does any particular image repeat throughout the essay/story? If so, why did the author choose it? Does it have “metaphorical” significance? Is it transformed in any way from beginning to end?
  • Find specific examples of abstract (ideas and concepts) and concrete (specific details, sensory impressions) language. What are the effects?
  • How does the writer create characters?
  • Identify where a writer chooses to expand into a full-fledged scene. Is it a “representative” scene or a “specific” one?
  • What kind of rhythm does the writer create? Is there a variety to the sentence structure? Read the piece aloud to get a sense of the writer’s voice.
  • How does the writer structure the essay or story and tow what effect? Why does it begin where it does? Why does it end with the image or scene the writer chose? Is it a linear narrative? Or one that is fragmented or circular?
  • Break down the piece paragraph my paragraph, or section by section. How does each piece act as a “building block?” How does the writer create dramatic tension or interest through these building blocks?
  • Look at the transitions the writer makes, either between paragraphs or between sections. How does he or she make these transitions? What effect to they have on the forward momentum of the piece?
  • Look at the first and last paragraphs. Are they linked in any way? Do they echo each other?
  • How does the writer create significance? How does the piece move from the personal to the universal?
  • Are they any moments that seem weak or clichéd to you? If so why? If this were your story or essay, how would you change those moments?
  • Is there a sense of resolution? Of closure? How about progression? Is there a change of awareness in the narrator or main characters from beginning to end?
  • What do you think the writer wanted to convey? Did they succeed?
  • Is there anything about the story or essay that provides a model for your own writing?

About npiasecki

Instructor of Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver, specializing in 21st century skills, research, and creative nonfiction. Director of the Denver Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project's professional network for K through College educators.
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