Sometimes when I run a workshop, I ask participants to bring along a sample of some writing they like. I don’t make this compulsory, but the response is usually an indicator of how they read. Around half will contribute something, and of these just a few will articulate why they like it.
In her book, Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword says that ‘A carefully crafted sentence welcomes its reader like a comfortable rocking chair, bears its reader across chasms like a suspension bridge, and helps its reader navigate tricky terrain like a well-hewn walking stick.’ I tell participants that in order to achieve this in their own work, they need to learn to read as writers. Those who can identify work they admire – and explain why – are already beginning to engage in this process. It’s a vital step that a lot of students seem to bypass. They read to harvest ideas, theories and evidence, and to deepen their knowledge. But not to develop their writing.
At one workshop, a participant contributed an abstract from a scientific journal. When I asked what he liked about the writing, he answered that he found it clear and logical. It flowed, and he felt it spoke to him. To such a response, my next question is always, how? Identify how it flows, and what makes it clear. Concrete images? Strong verbs? What makes that voice assertive, or remarkable? Sentences can function like music, using rhythm and balance to build and sustain pace; taking them apart can reveal how this is achieved. Conversely, if the writing seems deficient in some way, I’d suggest identifying why — it’s not enough to simply declare that a piece is poorly written.
I’d like to develop this aspect of my workshops further. Engaging physically – with pen and paper, with highlighters, reading aloud – can help us to understand how text is composed. I plan to distribute samples of writing and have participants work together in groups to identify the strengths in each piece, copying sentences down, highlighting phrases that demonstrate well-crafted prose, reading sections out loud. Such practices are central to the discipline of reading as a writer.