Creative writing and critical reading
Creative writing and critical reading

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3 Reading as a writer

In this section, you will engage critically with one or more texts or a radio play in order to practise close reading. You can choose from the following genres:

  • Option 1: Fiction
  • Option 2: Creative nonfiction
  • Option 3: Poetry
  • Option 4: Scriptwriting

Option 1: Fiction

When reading a novel or short story critically, there are numerous elements that you can focus on. These may include, but are not limited to, aspects such as:

  • point of view
  • character
  • style (including rhythm, sentence structure, imagery, idiosyncrasies)
  • voice or tone
  • structure
  • plotting
  • themes.

For instance, if thinking about a writer’s style, you might keep an eye out for recurring habits and traits. How long are the sentences? Is there a noticeable rhythm to the prose? Does the writer use a lot of simile and metaphor or are they more sparing? And what possibilities do these present for your own prose?

As another example, you might take a thematic approach, looking for how other writers treat themes similar to those that you’re interested in. Do they take an earnest or ironic approach to their subject matter? Is their tactic to be matter of fact, or do they dramatise their ideas? Whom do the ideas in the text seem to belong to (the narrator, or one or more of the characters)?

Activity 2 Fiction

Now read this extract from the beginning of a novel: Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (2008) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Here we are introduced to a first-person narrator reminiscing about his life. Consider the following questions:

  • How would you describe this writing style?
  • What are its chief characteristics (e.g., sentence structure, language choice, and imagery)?
  • How would you describe the tone?
  • What kind of relationship do these stylistic choices strike with the reader?

Jot down your thoughts on these, or any other elements of the piece, in the box below.

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Discussion

The tone of Rushdie’s narrator is comic and maybe even a little ironic. He is constantly interrupting himself and qualifying what he says. He immediately pulls us in with his exuberance, while at the same time raising questions about his reliability. The bustle and drama of his life is mirrored in the chaotic liveliness of the prose, with its long sentences and lyrical qualities. This is very much the opposite of a minimalist writing style.

The narrator’s voice is in some respects colloquial, but in a stylised manner. There is a jazzy improvisation and earthiness coupled with a pronounced literary flamboyance. It is a loud, generous style. Rushdie wants to indulge the reader and draw us in. The narrator’s tone is both playful and confessional.

Option 2: Creative nonfiction

When reading a work of creative nonfiction critically, there are numerous elements that you can focus on. These may include, but are not limited to, aspects such as:

  • style (including rhythm, sentence structure, imagery, idiosyncrasies)
  • voice or tone
  • structure or organising principles
  • plotting
  • themes
  • use of rhythm, simile and metaphor.

For instance, if thinking about a writer’s style, you might keep an eye out for recurring habits and traits. How long are the sentences? Is there a noticeable rhythm to the prose? Does the writer use a lot of simile and metaphor or are they more sparing? And what possibilities do these present for your own prose?

As another example, you might take a thematic approach, looking at how other writers treat themes similar to those that you’re interested in. Do they take an earnest or ironic approach to their subject matter? Is their tactic to be matter of fact, or do they dramatise their ideas? How do they let other people’s voices in: do they use quotation, allusion, dialogue, or any other strategies?

Activity 3 Creative nonfiction

Now read this extract from a creative nonfiction essay: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, ‘If he hollers let him go’.

Jot down the things that you notice about it, ranging from its technical aspects to whatever strikes you as interesting, in the box below. What are the distinctive features of Ghansah’s style and how do these contribute to her overall voice? What effects do you have?

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Discussion

Ghansah’s prose has several identifiable characteristics. Note how in the first few paragraphs we get very specific, local details woven into factual reportage; how she effortlessly combines the personal and the journalistic (like when she moves from New York Times quotes to a personal anecdote about a party to illuminate her point about Chappelle’s popularity and appeal); how she juxtaposes stylistic flourishes with research and quotations threaded throughout the piece; and her frequent use of interpolation and parenthesis. She also likes to directly address her reader, so that we get the feeling of being in a personal conversation: ‘Say it with me now.’

All of these features help create a very principled voice – a voice that can permit different sides of an argument to have their space while implicitly suggesting the author’s own position. And often the suggestion of Ghansah’s position expresses conflictedness as much as self-certainty. This gives her voice a sincerity and authenticity that is embodied by her varied style.

Option 3: Poetry

When reading a poem critically, there are numerous elements that you can focus on. These may include, but are not limited to, aspects such as:

  • voice and tone
  • structure and form; layout on the page
  • imagery; subject matter or theme
  • development or progression over the course of the poem
  • diction; figurative language; use of multiple registers (styles of language)
  • use of repetition, rhythm, rhyme
  • subtext, or what isn’t explicitly said.

Think about the decisions behind the making of the poem. Why did the author write it, and why was it written in this specific way? In other words, why has the author employed these elements in the poem – what effect do they have?

As another example, you might take a broader approach, looking at how the author treats a particular theme or subject matter. Do they take an earnest or ironic approach? Is their tactic to be matter of fact, or do they dramatise their ideas? In what other contexts can the poem be placed – stylistically, formally, historically, socially?

Activity 4 Poetry

Now read the following poem: Fleur Adcock, ‘A Surprise in the Peninsula’ (2000 [1971])

What do you consider its key qualities or elements? What effect do they have on you as a reader? Jot down your thoughts in the box below.

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Discussion

The following excerpt from an essay written by the critic and poet Ruth Padel provides answers to these questions.

The detached, sceptical-formal part of Adcock’s voice has an amused moral authority; underneath, the poem is charged with danger. Here, we are in thriller territory: bad-dream-land, film noir. A territory of not-knowing, of being surrounded by danger as a ‘peninsula’ is surrounded by water. [...]

The voice through whom we see this world is as sinister as anything outside. What does this ‘I’, so alone and objective, so acquainted, apparently, with violence, and yet so in need of protection (which in gangland has a specific technical meaning), get up to in the day? What is ‘I’ doing here, what has this I achieved when it’s ‘time to leave’? [...]

[The poem’s] resonant first line is answered by the last: we move from ‘in’ (‘came in’) to ‘out’ (‘I drew out’). The only actual glimpse outside we ever have is through that ‘bullet-hole’. [...]

Most sentence-endings and closures come somewhere inside a line. Not all: ‘remained’, ‘map’, ‘moonlight’, ‘gone’ and ‘gift’ are sudden resting points in this confused sinister world which deprives you of that finding a pattern which rhyme represents. (Rhyme is traditionally paired with reason, but this poem is not going to hand you much of that.)

(Padel, 2002, pp. 135–7)

Option 4: Scriptwriting

Reading critically as a scriptwriter involves ‘reading’ performances. With a notebook at hand, you should watch and listen to as much work as you can, particularly in the medium in which you want to write (film, stage or radio plays). Reading as a scriptwriter also means immersing yourself in the scripts of dramatists, looking at the ways in which drama is constructed and learning how it functions.

Reading a performance involves analysing a film or play, focusing on particular narrative elements. But you can also assess the semiotics of the drama – what is perceived as meaningful in the seen and heard aspects of performance; how some elements are repeated; how small objects, images, and parts of the set can come to signify meaning on several different levels.

When reading a performance and/or script critically, there are numerous elements that you can focus on. These may include, but are not limited to, aspects such as:

  • characterisation and back story
  • dramatic actionvs. exposition
  • structure; scenes; the handling of time
  • dialogue; voice over (if any)
  • use of stage directions, actions, sound effects
  • types of set and use of props
  • planting information with a later pay-off; subtext.

Activity 5 Scriptwriting

Now listen to this excerpt from a radio play, which consists of its final scenes, and then read the transcript of it either by clicking on ‘Show transcript’ or by accessing this PDF: The Day Dad Stole a Bus transcript.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1 Péricles Silveira,
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Audio 1 Péricles Silveira, The Day Dad Stole a Bus (2016)
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Consider how the writer achieved a resolution to this play. Were you confused or did you feel confident about what was happening, even though you had not listened to the preceding scenes? Jot down your thoughts on these, or any other elements of the piece, in the box below.

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Discussion

In Silveira’s play, there is a gesture towards the end-action of the play (with Dad’s coat), but also a sign of life going on after the play’s ending with the reference to playing hide-and-seek ‘tomorrow’. Also note the deft balance between dialogue and the narrator’s exposition, and how the characters are differentiated through the way they speak. Silveira uses relatively simple language to create authentic yet lively dialogue.

It helps to use a non-chronological or nonlinear approach like this in your critical reading of performance and script – for example, picking out how individual scenes start, how they end, how dialogue works in social settings, how monologues operate. Reading specific sections in isolation reminds you that a script has to have a structural coherence even in its smallest units.

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