By Chris Street
Have you ever tried to explain to someone else why you liked a particular piece of writing? It can be difficult to find the language needed to explain exactly why a particular piece resonated with you. Trying to discern how authors make their writing powerful, beautiful, emotional, or descriptive is tough to do.
Yet when we demystify authors’ styles we can learn how writers accomplish the incredible things they do with words. For example, by looking at how writers use active verbs, sentence variety, precise nouns, rhythms of language, vocabulary, organizational schemes, sensory details, repetition, parallel structures, and punctuation—we can begin to acquire the language needed to discuss the ways in which their writing appeals to us.
Another way to consider this is to ask yourself a question: If you were going to replicate the style of a piece of writing that you admire without copying the exact words, how would you do it? It’s not easy to focus your attention to look at a piece of writing this way, but this is what careful readers do when they are trying to learn the craft of writing.
Reading like an author is a skill that all aspiring writers learn to do. Reading like an author helps you to discover different stylistic devices, find various ways to engage readers, and leaves you with a greater awareness of how to target your writing for specific audiences.
As teachers you are all already accomplished readers. Now, I’d invite you to try reading like an author.
For teachers interested in learning to write articles for publication in professional journals this would mean reading the kinds of journals that might publish one’s work. For teachers more interested in writing successful grant proposals this might mean reading previously funded grant proposals as a way to internalize the features of writing that separate the successful from the unsuccessful proposals. The same would be true of aspiring bloggers or web site developers. The models are all around us. All we need to do is read them carefully—as potential authors—and we will surely learn important lessons about the craft of writing.
Since part of our work as English teachers is to support students as they strive to make connections between the texts they read and the writers we want them to appreciate, we can apprentice students in the task of reading like an author by modeling for them how this text-based task is performed. As with all complex literacy tasks, learning to read like an author takes time and guidance. The strategic guidance we can offer students is that much more powerful when we are able to model for students what it means to “think rhetorically,” as an author would. As we uncover the power of an author’s craft for students, we enable students to feel that they are personally part of a larger discourse community, or conversation. And when we help unlock the power behind an author’s words, we allow students to feel they have increased power over the texts they read. Reading like an author can indeed be a transformative event for developing writers, allowing them to see themselves as rhetorical writers who can apply their newly learned skills as they write with increased confidence, skill, and power.
But students are not likely to learn to read like an author unless we model for them what this looks like. As an example, here’s one of my favorite pieces of writing and a few words describing why I like it:
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” (The Outsiders)
The opening words to S.E. Hinton’s short novel immediately ensnare me in her world—the world of a teenager coming to grips with a gritty reality. The crisp words offer a glimpse of the main character and narrator while hinting at the struggle of good versus evil that will occupy the mind of the young story teller.
Hers is a book that tells the truth about life through a teenager’s eyes. The eyes that adjust to the bright sun are Hinton’s eyes, the eyes of a teenager who wrote The Outsiders “because I wanted to read it.”
Using just 29 words, she makes me feel the same way.
Chris Street is a Professor of Secondary Education at California State University, Fullerton, where he also directs the masters program in secondary education. He helps lead the statewide implementation of ERWC as a professional learning facilitator, module author, and member of the ERWC Steering Committee.