Writing Notes: The Art of X-Ray Reading

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When Roy Peter Clark writes something, I pay attention. Clark is a writing coach and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, and his advice on writing is poignant, clear, and helpful for anyone who has to sit down and bang out a message. I am still meandering through his latest book, The Art of X-Ray Reading, but I skipped to the back to get the 12 steps for being an X-ray reader.

“Why is reading important to a writer?” Many students and potential authors ask this question. “I just want to write.” You can’t just write. A writer has to be immersed in the genre he or she is writing. They have to know good prose, be able to identify what works and doesn’t work, and pinpoint the rhythms and voice needed for the particular piece. Writing just doesn’t happen. It takes practice, and part of the practice is writing. As a devotee of Stephen King’s On Writing, he makes it clear what the task of the writer is:

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

Reading should sharpen your mind per Ray Bradbury (via Brain Pickings):

In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world.

Melissa Donovan summed up the connection this way:

“To write well, there are only two things you absolutely must do: read and write. Everything else will flow from these two activities, which are essentially yin and yang. Without each other, reading and writing cannot exist. They rely on one another. They are two parts of a greater whole.”

“But how do I read?” The reading that is done as a panicked, rushing student isn’t the same reading that you have to do when you are reading as a writer. Writers must go deeper than the normal information scanning routines to look at the marrow and skeletal structures of the writing.

Clark gives some rules that any writer, nonfiction or fiction oriented, can use to strengthen their reading and eventually their writing:

  • Read. Simple enough, right? To write well, one must be exposed to all types of writing. Dig into white papers, novels, comic books, microfiction, and long-form nonfiction.

It’s 1998, and Luther Campbell walks into a party on Key Biscayne. If this were a romantic comedy, now is when everything would switch to slow motion as a Lisa Loeb song fades in.
He notices Khaled almost immediately. Even at an industry party for radio professionals, which this is, Khaled stands out, Campbell remembers.
Keep imagining this in slow motion. It’s sexier that way.
Khaled is frantic, breaking into songs to scream at anyone who dares stand still. He bounces on the balls of his feet, shifting from left foot to right like a cocky fighter, mixing an odd cocktail of Jamaican dancehall and hip-hop as sweat beads on his forehead.
It is pure energy, almost at dangerous levels. Some doctors might have diagnosed it. Uncle Luke wants to bottle it. “He had a mouthpiece on him, man,” Campbell says. “So much energy.”
But let’s back up a bit. You can stop the whole slow-motion thing now.
Read these showstopper passages again. This time do it slowly.

  • Identify the part of the passage that you like the best. In the above passage, I loved the mix of contradictory references (bespectacled Lisa Loeb paired with First Amendment defender/booty music pioneer Luther Campbell) and the vibrant metaphors. I have been to that type of party. I have seen people dance like that. I can also smell the Jamaican patties, rum punch, body oils, and cannabis all under the night stars. Yes, that imagery put me in the location.
  • Read that section aloud.
  • Circle the paragraph and make descriptive notes about why it interests you.
  • Ask yourself, “How does the writer do this?” That’s a good question, and I looked through the article again. The writer’s tone and voice was set in paragraph one. It is clear he is a patient observer of things, places, and people. One has to be to make the connective tissues of this piece–the strong metaphors, the vivid imagery, the deep insight into the Miami music scene, and the sheer humor–work.
  • Duplicate the passage and save it in a journal or file. (One of my graduate professors said that she copied by hand journal articles of her mentor so she could understand the structure, composition, and language of his writing and arguments. It worked. She writes flawlessly.)
  • Don’t imitate the text. Let it be an indirect influence on your personal writing.
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Why I’m Doing #NaNoWriMo

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Soon, my favorite holiday will be here. Soon, November 1 (and another favorite holiday) will arrive. I have a lot of other things I must, should, and have to do in November: drinking mojitos and talking research ideas here, Thanksgiving, crafting gifts for clients, selecting gifts for family, writing book chapters, editing a co-edited book, writing articles with graduate students, grading papers, and wrapping up my graduate director duties.

I am doing all of those things, along with hammering out words for NaNoWriMo.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. It’s an utterly insane premise that you (yes, you mere mortal) can carve out time to crank out 50,000 words. (Yes, this method has critics. Yes, this month has skeptics. Yes, this month has avid fans. I’m not writing about those issues. My mottos about all this hubbub are “treat yo’ self” and “do you, boo boo.”) I’ve been a bad NaNo participant for years. Last year, I finished. This year, I’m going to try again.

Why the hell would someone with the above list of things to do agree to NaNoWriMo? Good question. It’s one question I ask myself every day in November. Heck, I ask it every time I sit down to drop some words into a story I am writing.

Lindsay Oden, a blogger with ProfHacker (one of my favorite blogs), wrote about his exploration into writing fiction and what that did for his research work: “expressing internal conflict in an unrestricted manner, exercising creative muscles for non-fiction work, and channeling creative energy.” As he noted:

…as Eva Lantsoght has argued, research is actually a creative endeavor that must transgress current boundaries, you should build those creative instincts early. Where better to violate standards of current knowledge than by tearing them apart in a fictional universe? Where better to explore the limits of your thinking than in a consequence-free imaginary place? There’s something truly liberating about creating, shaping, deleting, and rebuilding anything any way you want.

Writing has alway been a creative channel, one that I abandoned in graduate school when I started writing my dissertation. I thought I was done with that “fluff writing,” but the librarian who took my piles of Writers Digest magazines and books on writing shook her head in disbelief. “You’ll come back to it.” She was right. I did. Not doing creative writing dammed up the other research and other writing I had to do. Writing is an escape for the non-fiction I live and breathe every day. I write because it is what I have always wanted to do. When I was 3, 13, and 23, all I wanted to be was a writer. I didn’t specify academic writer or non-fiction writer or whatever. Just a writer. That’s who I am to my core. I write (furiously, badly, awkwardly) every month but especially in November because it’s what I do.

I also want to get this damn story out of my head and onto the page. And I would like to submit it to an editor. There, I’ve put my goals out there. I’m writing Nov. 1 through 30. Join me by signing up here. Cheer me on. Ask how I’m doing (on Twitter or via email). Don’t bother me with phone calls because you know, 50,000 words in 30 days can make a person a tad cranky. Do whatever floats your boat. I know I will be.

Now, excuse me. I have some plotting and planning to do before November 1.