A writer does the same. We tear things apart to figure out the how and why, so we can duplicate the techniques in our own writing. Reading is the primary means of learning to write, which is why it makes me sad when new writers tell me they "don't read." I typically sic Stephen King on their heretic asses:
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. (King)
Reading as a writer is a good talent to have, as reading is the sole training ground for writers. You don't have to have a background in "how to write fiction," you don't have to have an undergraduate degree in Literature or an MFA in Creative Writing in order to be a writer. You just need to start as a reader.
But as often as English teachers or writing professors or well-meaning friends tell you to "read like a writer," most of them aren't as explicit at what they mean by that. Some call it close reading, because you're reading very carefully, but I like the phrase read like a writer, because it gives reading a purpose. I'm reading like a writer so that I can become a writer (or a better writer).
Mike Bunn, in his essay "Read Like a Writer," says that
When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of the choices the author made so that you can better understand how such choices might arise in your own writing. The idea is to carefully examine the things you read, looking at the writerly techniques in the text in order to decide if you might want to adopt similar (or the same) techniques in your writing. (Bunn)
Before we know what to write, we need to know how to write, and the how is reading like a writer. Asking questions, annotating, figuring out how a writer accomplished a certain technique. Like the seamstress, we are taking apart a shirt so that we can use it as a pattern for making our own shirt.
Mimicry is part of the learning process. In middle school I wrote a noir detective story my teacher said sounded "borrowed." Nevermind that her destructive commentary became that negative voice in my head (and most writers have them). The point is that I started at a point of mimicry, but I grew past it. I learned the rules so I knew when, where, and how to break them effectively. I still read like a writer, and I'm reading a book a week (or more). I read across the card catalog: fiction and nonfiction, literature and genre fiction like romance, mystery, thrillers, women's fiction, and just about any genre but horror (sorry Stephen King). Speaking of Stephen King, he continues the quote about the value of reading with the following:
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in … Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway" (King).
Reading is an invaluable part of a writer's toolbox. In fact, it may be THE essential tool, but only if you're reading like a writer. So what does that mean? Check out Mike Bunn's article, published free as part of an OER (Open Education Resource), for specific, concrete ideas on what it means to read like a writer. Also, see the video below on how to annotate as you read.
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.