Ever Changing Hats

wherein I explore the various ways a reader/writer/editor reads, while still attempting to enjoy a story.

Yesterday I attended a terrific workshop, “Writing for Young Adults,” taught by Elizabeth Mosier and sponsored by the Delaware Literary Connection. Libby teaches writing at Bryn Mawr College and is the author of My Life as a Girl and a contributor to the soon to be released, Prompted, an anthology that explores the human condition via poetry, personal essays, and fiction. Prompted was put together by Philadelphia Stories magazine, in partnership with the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio, and will be out on May 22.

In speaking about the anthology experience, Libby made a comment that stuck with me. She contrasted how she reads as an editor to how she reads as a teacher. She said that while reading as an editor she had to look for problems in the piece, whereas as an instructor, she reads for potential within a piece.

I quickly wrote down this comment because it so clearly states my own feelings. How I read a manuscript I critique as an editor is different from how I read as a writer, which is different from how I read as a reader. I’ve heard many writers talk about this. I think of it as different reading hats.

Wearing my Editor Hat, I read for potential, as Libby said. I look for what is working in a story, what I think the author is trying to say or show, as well as for what needs work. I also look for what the author may have unconsciously missed—elements of theme that may be overlooked or underplayed; missed opportunities that would allow a character to reveal more; intriguing narrative questions that may be understated or missed altogether.

As an editor, I call in all three readers—editor, writer and reader. The editor in me tells the writer in the author how to best reach the reader in me. It’s a little mind-bending to read on paper like this, but it works perfectly well in practice.

When I’m reading as a writer, I look at things differently. Under my Writer Hat, I generally read work in one of my working genres. In my case, that’s usually literary short stories or mysteries. While I read to enjoy the story, I’m also mentally deconstructing the plot and analyzing the characters from a writerly point of view. I read with an internal ticker-tape parade of questions: “Ooh, how did the author come up with that method of murder?” “Why did the author choose to tell me this background instead of putting it into a scene?” “Hmm. Is what this character just said supported by what this character does in the story?” “Whoa! Where heck did that come from?”

Reading as a writer means I’m trying to put myself in author’s head. It’s fun but sometimes frustrating, because I can’t always figure out why the author did this, that or the other. Before I was a writer, I never questioned why something happened in a story. I accepted the course of events as I would expert testimony in a trial—irrefutable. Now that I write, I know that there is nothing irrefutable in an author’s decisions. Knowing this makes me work harder to get things right in my own stories, to shore up why and how characters act with background and traits that make what they do make sense. I don’t want another writer, or reader, or anyone, to be reading one of my stories and say, “Whoa! Where did that come from?” unless I actually intended there to be a big surprise.

Finally, I read as a reader. Or, maybe more accurately, as a fan. The Reader Hat is the best to wear. This is the best kind of reading, to just pick up the book and get lost in a story. No pressure to change, no desire to question. Just read. This can only happen, I believe, if a writer first reads the story as a writer, and then an editor reads the story as an editor, and together they create a work for the reader. Editor-writer-read. It’s a process. They’re a team. Hopefully a winning one.

Do other people read different stories in different ways? Does your internal editor kick in, or your internal writer interrupt to question the author? Does your internal reader tell everyone else to shut up and just let her read already!?!

Tell me about it.


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