Author’s craft. What is it? How do we identify it? And what’s the purpose behind it?
For most of us, studying “author’s craft” stirs up traumatic memories from middle school. We were assigned a long list of literary devices to memorize. And sooner or later, we were taking our new vocab words and executing a time-sensitive scavenger hunt in The Scarlet Letter. Quick– there! Before class is over, make sure you grab a simile.
While we managed to make do with our literary classics, we’ve unfortunately reduced author’s craft to a 7th-grade vocabulary study. We don’t think of tone, sentence structure, or centralism. We think of onomatopoeia and alliteration. And then, we write as if we’re dumping in random ingredients from the fridge because we’re told spices help storytelling.
So how do we understand author’s craft more authentically? And how do we appreciate it in order to make ourselves better writers? Check out the following four steps!
1. Read a Text Undistracted
It seems basic, and that’s because it is. Studies show our brains can’t absorb information and analyze it at the same time. So just read. Read what you want. Read what you like. And read it like it’s your only homework assignment.
This might feel irresponsible, but you won’t be able to understand author’s craft without giving a text your undivided attention. The best thing you can do for literature is read the way it was intended: without highlighters, post-its, or a reflection deadline due next Monday.
Just take the words at their first impression.
2. Decide Whether You Like it or Not
Do you like what you read? Or did you not?
It’s one of the easiest questions we can ask in this process, but it’s one of the most crucial to answer. Because author’s craft is designed to leave an impression.
Emotions—ranging from appreciation to apathy—are like personal traffic signs. They highlight roads we want to take, don’t want to take, and even show room for improvement. Don’t worry if something is a classic and was worshiped by your linguistics professor. You can’t identify the author’s craft until you see what emotions the author successfully (or unsuccessfully) tried to elicit.
3. Identify Sections
Okay, highlighters. This is when you get to make your comeback. After identifying as a whole how you felt about the piece, go back and find your favorites. Don’t worry about what you “should” be circling. You, as the reader, have permission to respond to the writer without a supervisor. And so, identify sections that you really liked. (Or didn’t like). After all, there will be writing strategies that not everyone likes and that’s okay.
To include an example, I’m sharing a paragraph from one of my favorite writers, Shauna Niequist. I referenced this excerpt in a previous post about inspiration, and am returning to it for similar purposes:
I don’t operate in later. I’ve always been proud of that. But look where it’s gotten me. Stuffed. Exhausted. Wrung out and over-scheduled to the point where even things I love to do sound like obligations, and all my deepest desires and fantasies involve sleep and being left alone. My greatest dream is to be left alone? Things have gone terribly awry.
4. Identify Strategies
Once we have a particular excerpt, we can begin to annotate. While the word “annotations” may conjure memories of Post-modern literature and textbook essays, this is much more organic. Because all you’re doing is taking your reactions and adding a critical eye.
What did you enjoy (or not enjoy) about this section? What words stuck out to you? Do you have a favorite sentence? Don’t worry so much about naming strategies. No good writer starts a novel thinking, “On page 242, I’d like to include a series of hyperboles.”
With Niequist’s paragraph, I enjoy her relatability. Her language is uncomplicated and stripped to simplicity. She isn’t interested in sounding more glamorous, and she’s reflective of her emotions. I also like that she’s not afraid to break grammar rules and use intentionally structured fragments (a grammar-lovers nightmare!).
“Stuffed.” “Exhausted.” “Wrung out and over-scheduled…”
While these answers came out of my responses to the text, author’s craft always has and always will be about the writer and the reader. Literature is communication, after all.
Similies, metaphors, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. They’re all examples of writing strategies, but useless if we don’t see why and how they’re used. Author’s craft, essentially, is the culmination of tools and writing strategies to say something a certain way.
As the reader, you’re vital to that experience because you answer the question, “What did you hear?” Let your reflections be welcomed. Because understanding the author’s craft means analyzing the reader’s response.