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Gathering Magic: How to Read Like a Writer

Crystal Wilkinson, Spalding MFA Fiction Faculty


If you are a writer and are looking for magic, something to propel your forward, the answer is simple. Pssst–come closer. Closer.

Here it goes:

Write and read. Then read and write.

Ernest Gaines recently told an audience that he had six words of advice for writers, “Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write.” I agree.

Like many writers, I make my living leading creative writing workshops in the community and teaching writing courses at a university. These professions produce great embryonic writers, but I contend that those writers who develop their own sense of the worlds they invent and pull the reader so deftly in are able to do so because they have spent time studying writing not in a classroom but in the comfort of their own spaces—carrying copies of Their Eyes Were Watching God (or whatever the source of their muse is) around like the bible; cuddling and coveting words and the worlds they admire in every way possible.

I must admit that my lust lies in the world of books. I return to the books that I love the most time and time again—sometimes searching for a passage for hours and hours.

Every time I teach, I learn.

Every time I read, I become a better writer.

More than ten years ago I began teaching a workshop called “How to Read Like a Writer.”  Over the course of four days, I walk the participants through some of my favorite stories, which often include:

Snow Angel by Stephanie Vaughn

Bones of the Inner Ear by Kiana Davenport

Big Me by Dan Choan

Kudzu by William Henry Lewis

Pet Fly by Walter Mosley

Between the Pool and the Gardenias by Edwidge Danticat

The 5:22 by George Harrar

Shiloh by Bobbie Ann Mason

Weight by John Edgar Wideman

Live Life King-Sized by Hester Kaplan

The pulse for the class, a heart for the love and power of words, began each afternoon with the question “How did reading this story make me a better writer?” While I told the participants what I most admired regarding craft, scaffolding (structure), and/or language (diction/syntax) and why I thought these decisions by the writer not only made the story good but left a haunting in your soul—they responded equally about what they most revered, most often honing in on the element that they had the most problems with as writers: too much description/dialogue that doesn’t move/scenes where nothing happens, etc.

Each story we read was a banquet to be devoured, and once the participants looked for the “lesson” in each story, they found a myriad of them, each writer honing in on their own strengths, weaknesses, shortcomings or haunts and, through the eyes of these published writers, becoming better writers.

MFA Good Negress 2

A.J. Verdelle (author of The Good Negress) describes learning to write as an autodidactic process, and she’s right. You may be nurtured along by a good workshop or a good creative writing class, but when it boils down to it, learning to write well is as inward-looking a process as writing itself.

For our class, I compiled a list of 10 Ways to Read Like a Writer. But the ways to read a book and learn from it are many. So think about it and come up with your own.

10 Ways to Read Like a Writer:

  1. Ask yourself, “How did reading this novel/story/chapter/poem/essay contribute to my learning the craft?”

  2. Look for the construction of tension. (Where’s the rub?)

  3. Identify the MAP of the piece.

  4. Type up passages or entire stories of those you admire.

  5. Examine the seams. Read a writer’s first works, or read them in the order in which they were written.

  6. Circle the verbs (follow the movement of the story).

  7. Dissect the writer’s attention to SCENE.

  8. Does the ending loft the READER up to the next level of understanding? How does the beginning get at the pulsing heart of the work?

  9. Don’t just enjoy the ride! Climb into the head of the writer.

  10. What do you see if you actually copy the passage and dissect it with scissors? We did this paying attention to how scene and transitions work in George Harrar’s The 5:22, but you can do it with anything that you wish.

Below are writers that I’ve learned a lot from. Who would you put on your list?

Toni Morrison

Gayl Jones

James Baldwin

Michael Ondaatje

Ha Jin

John Edgar Wideman

MFA John Edgar

John Edgar Wideman

Of course my list is much longer, but these are the writers I return to again and again.

Happy reading!

Happy writing.

Email me at and let me know your 10 ways to read like a writer.


CRYSTAL WILKINSON is the author of The Birds of Opulence, winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Award in Literary Excellence, Blackberries, Blackberries , winner of the 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature and Water Street , a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She is also the recipient of awards and fellowships from The Kentucky Foundation for Women, The Kentucky Arts Council, The Mary Anderson Center for the Arts and the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship Fund at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is the recent winner of the 2008 Denny Plattner Award in Poetry from Appalachian Heritage Magazine and the Sallie Bingham Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women.  She currently teaches in and directs the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Morehead State University. She also teaches in the brief residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University and has taught in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Indiana University–Bloomington. She and her partner Artist Ron Davis, are founders and editors of Mythium Literary Journal.



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