We all know that writers should also be avid readers. But do you know what it looks like to actually study a book to see what makes it work? In this episode, we’re exploring what it means to read like a writer by using a “mentor text” to study specific craft techniques. I’ll give you six steps to set yourself up for success as you learn from those who’ve made it work on the page.
Hello writers. I just finished reading a really fun middle grade novel called To Night Owl From Dogfish, by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer. While this book had been on my radar for a while (it was published back in 2019) I just hadn’t picked it up yet. But because my work-in-progress is going to rely heavily on the voices of the three narrators, my book coach Julie suggested that I read it as a great example of character voice. Just for the record, this book is great! If you have a young reader in your life or just love to read books for kids yourself, I highly recommend this one. I’ll put a link in the show notes. But back to my story. When Julie recommended that I read this book, I immediately made a plan for how to go about it. Because it’s middle grade, meant for readers ages 8-12, I knew it would be a fast read. So I would read it twice. The first time, I would read it just to experience the story. The second read-through would be a study session, focused on how the two authors made each voice so specific and unique to the individual characters.
Today I want to talk about what it means to study a book for certain structural elements or devices that the author used effectively. Since I finished reading From Night Owl to Dogfish for fun, and I’m about to dive into the study of it, I thought I could use it to illustrate what I’m suggesting that you try, too.
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. 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.
Let’s back up for a moment. There are three types of reading that a writer should do. One is reading 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. Today we are going to be talking about 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 “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.
When I was teaching elementary school writers, mentor texts were a part of nearly every lesson. I would pull a passage out of a book and we would read it together. I would point out where the writer did something which the students were learning to do in their own writing. Then we’d practice together with collaborative piece of writing before I sent them off to try it in their own writing.
Today I want to share a grown-up way to use mentor texts with your own writing, and then send you off to try it with your own writing. So let’s get started!
There are 6 steps to this process. Step 1 is to 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!”
First of all, no. That is too much to take on, and 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 is to 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 is to 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 is to remind yourself about step 1. Which skill or strategy are you looking for? 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 is to decide how you are going to notate what you find. 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.”
Once you’ve got your plan, Step 6 is to get to it. 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.
So let’s go through those 6 steps again.
Step 1: Choose the skill, strategy or structure that you want to study.
Step 2: Choose the mentor text.
Step 3: Read or scan the story if it is new to you.
Step 4: Remind yourself what you plan to study and put a reminder where you can see it at all times.
Step 5: Make a plan for how to keep track of what you discover.
Step 6: Structure your time to allow for this work on a consistent basis.
Writers, 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. I’ll talk to you next week.