book inc  –  journal  –  Reading Like a Writer: Summer Edition

Reading Like a Writer: Summer Edition

book inc writer Jennifer Gaites ventures out of her reading comfort zone and realizes not every book will impact her own writing.

By Jennifer Gaites

August 03, 2023

This time of year, like many people, I have a seasonal surge in reading. I’ve already read several books this summer, but surprisingly I kicked off my summer reads a bit more … well, seriously than I normally do. I mean, I admire a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as much as the next reader, but admittedly, I sometimes veer a bit lighter in my summer reading selections. Or even in my winter selections.

In the beginning of June, I finished Trust by Hernan Diaz, one of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners, and then dove into The Promise by Damon Galgut, winner of the 2021 Booker Prize. Both were heady, thought-provoking books, where the authors made fascinating choices in structure and voice.

If I’m being completely honest, I might not have read either had it not been for my trusty writing community. I read Trust for a group discussion with fellow writers from the Book Revision Lab and The Promise for book inc’s Read Like a Writer class. It’s tremendous fun to have people to discuss books with—especially people who are in the thick of writing their own manuscripts. 

Because, of course, writers read with a keen eye, not just on the plot elements and character development, but on how a book is crafted. I tend to be an easygoing audience as a reader, willing to go along for the ride. Discussing craft choices with other writers pushed me to look a little closer, think a little harder, and admire (or critique) a little more. 

But, here’s another confession: it’s not yet clear to me what these books can teach me about my own writing. 

Conceptually, both novels told complex stories. Both broke many of the conventional rules of writing (in fact, they broke rules that I’ve both learned and shared in my writing classes)—changing voices, changing POVs, changing tense, and breaking the fourth wall … just to name a few. As much as I admired the writing, I would never imagine trying any of these tactics in my own work. 

As I read both books, I kept thinking, How is the writer doing this? and, What is making me turn the pages? But I also wondered, Do I always have to read through the lens of a writer? Does every book I read have to inform my own writing in some way? Or is some writing just too far from my own style to make a difference?

It’s fun to read a bit out of my comfort zone and to see how writers take risks and play. Maybe not every book I read will impact my own process, but it will help clarify what I like and what I don’t. The benefits of reading a wide range of styles are well-documented and go well beyond improving our own writing. And, I might have enjoyed these two books because they are a sharp departure from the story currently percolating in my head—a bit of a genre vacation. The bottom line is: writers read. And, sometimes, writers read just for the pure pleasure of stepping inside the mind of another writer.

Jennifer Gaites is a writing instructor at Project Write Now, and a book inc Peer Artist Leader. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama and is forthcoming in Hippocampus.