Well, the Easter holidays are here but, for many, I would guess this holiday doesn’t feel so much like a holiday. With GCSEs, AS levels and A levels on the near horizon, the word REVISION has probably been metaphorically tattooed across brains all over the country.
Diving into my filing cabinet yesterday, I found the notes from a course I went on long ago. It was a “Masterclass in Short Story Writing” - how I qualified to be there in the first place is a complete mystery to me! However, it turned out to be one of the best courses I have ever been on and one particular piece of information stuck in my mind:-
“If you want to write, you need to learn to read like a writer.”
It could have said, “If you want to pass English exams you need to learn to read like a writer,” . To read like a reader is like looking at a clock and telling the time. To read like a writer is to take the back off the clock and to examine its inner workings - to see how all the bits fit together and to discover what makes it tick and chime. Reading like a writer is not necessarily something we want to do all the time, but we do need to do it when studying literature and, often, it can completely change the way we feel about a book.
I suspect many of you, at some point, have started reading a novel and then put it down saying, “I just can’t get into it”. I did this two days ago. I thrashed my way through a novel we were reading for our book club. “This is supposed to be a MUST READ,” I complained, hating every page of it and bored out of my mind. Finally, I got to the end and, still moaning, I went to the internet where I found nothing but glowing reviews. What had I missed???
Annoyed, I went back to the beginning (which I had forgotten) and immediately saw a startling circularity to the story. I read on, absorbed. I kept examining what it was the writer was doing and how she was doing it. By the end of the first chapter I was hooked. It was as if I was holding a different book. I saw things I hadn’t noticed first time round. As soon as I started engaging with the story, I started to be engaged by the story.
Once you start ripping apart the inner workings of a book, it becomes fascinating in an almost scientific way - even if it isn’t your kind of story. Put the magnifying glass on short, key passages in your texts. Attack them with forensic curiosity - question every word. Why has the author done something in a certain way? How does the author convey information to us? As you do this, you may well find your reader response to the entire story developing and changing. You may still want to fling it off the nearest cliff - but at least you will know why ...
...and I suggest you wait until the English exam is over!