This post originally appeared on Medium in March 2021. Highlights are from readers.

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

We all know that it’s important for writers to also be avid readers. But today I want to talk about what it means to study a book for certain structural elements or devices that the author used effectively.

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There are three types of reading that a writer should do. One ireading for pleasure, which I strongly encourage you to do on a regular basis. The second is reading how-to books, or instructional books on the ins and outs of craft or publishing or the writing life. The third type of reading that every writer should do when they set out to write a new piece of work, and that is what we call in the world of education reading “mentor texts.”

In job or school settings, a mentor is someone who is doing the work you want to be doing, and you learn by watching them, talking with them about it, and shadowing them. Mentor texts are essentially the same thing. They are pieces of writing similar in genre and structure to what you want to create, which you study to understand particular moves that the writer made.

I’m in the very early stages of writing a middle-grade novel that is going to heavily rely on the voices of the three narrators. Toward that end, my book coach suggested that I read To Night Owl From Dogfish, by Meg Wolitzer and Holly Goldberg Sloan (2019) as a great example of alternating narrative voice. I did, and I loved it! And now it’s time to study it.

Step 1: Decide on one skill, strategy, structural element, or device that you want to improve on or utilize in your current work-in-progress.

Now, this is really important. It’s tempting to say “I loved To Night Owl From Dogfish, so I’m going to study it to see how the authors did everything!” But that is too much to take on. It’s too much for your brain to categorize. You’ll bounce from topic to topic, looking at dialogue on this page and sentence structure on that page and character development here and plot development there.

However, if you look at a mentor text through a single lens, you will be able to focus on how the author is doing that one thing throughout the book.

It doesn’t mean that you won’t work on the other things in your writing, nor does it mean that you can’t make another pass at the same book through a different lens later. All it means is that, for right now, you are picking one thing to study in this book.

Step 2: Choose the mentor text.

Again, you probably have a long list of possible options, but I’d like to give you some ways to narrow it down. Choose a piece that is in the same genre as yours, with a similar target audience. Depending on what it is that you want to study, you might consider things like length or how much time passes in the book. Get as close to your own book as you can, while still choosing a book that you know is well-written. If you can’t find one that fits the bill, reach out to your reading and writing community. You might say something like, “I’m looking for a great contemporary romance novel where the author used a lot of humor” or “I’m looking for a short story set during the Gold Rush with great setting descriptions.”

Step 3: Read it through if you haven’t already.

If it’s long, at least scan it. This is important. If you don’t already have a sense of the story, your brain is going to be focused on what happens next rather than what the author is doing behind the curtain.

Step 4: Remember Step 1.

Which skill or strategy are you studying? Write it on a sticky note, and use the sticky note as a bookmark or stick it on your e-book reader. Again, your brain is going to want to look for everything, so it’s important to remind it to stay focused throughout the process.

Step 5: Decide how to take notes on what you find.

You don’t want to run the risk of forgetting these great strategies. Will you highlight passages, then go back and dissect them? Will you take notes? Will you write in the margins? It’s important to have a plan for how you are going to process the observations you make. In my experience, writing them down in some form helps me synthesize what I’m seeing and turn it into something practical that I can use as a resource while I work on my own book.

Let me give you a quick example of this one from my own process. As I said, I’m going to study To Night Owl From Dogfish for how the authors develop the voices of the two preteen narrators, as that’s something I need to be able to do in my work-in-progress. I’m planning to go through and write down examples of things that I see in a list that I can add to later as I write and brainstorm. One thing I’ve already noticed is that one of the girls, who is a little more impulsive, visually emphasizes some words in all capital letters, while the other one, who is a little more anxious and reserved, speaks in long, wordy sentences that are clearly well thought-out. So on my list I’ll write down “all caps for intensity” and “longer sentences for thoughtfulness.”

Step 6: Get to work.

Set aside time to study your mentor text. A little bit every day is ideal until you’ve completed your study. Keep your notetaking tools and mentor text together. Mindfully make this part of the research you need to do for your work-in-progress.

I have to be honest: I usually only study one mentor text with each new piece of work, at most. I don’t do it with every piece I write. But when I do it, it is a really powerful experience, and I know you will find it the same.

The good news is that since, hopefully, you are already an avid reader, you will likely have an entire backlist of books you’ve read and enjoyed to choose from. And I want to say clearly here at the beginning that there is no one best book to study for any one particular strategy that a writer might use. In other words, I could have chosen any number of books to study for how the writer developed a strong voice besides To Night Owl From Dogfish. But it is the one that I have chosen.

Using a mentor text is an amazing way to grow your writing craft while learning from those who have paved the way for you. It’s not cheating, or copying, or anything of the sort. It is learning from a mentor. And that is a powerful thing.

Let me help you find and study a high-quality mentor text!
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