Friday, January 25, 2013

Mentor Texts: Learning to Write from What We Read

If you want to write, you have to read

Writers,  like everyone else, read in order to learn and for their personal enjoyment, but beyond that, writers also practice a different kind of reading. “Reading like a writer” entails reading with the intention of learning more about writing  from the texts and authors we are reading.

Reading what other writers have written and attending to how they have written expands the possibilities we can envision for our own writing.   The texts from which we learn may be as short as one sentence, a paragraph, a poem or essay, or a longer collection of poems, or an entire book.  These texts become mentor texts for us as we allow the authors to show us how to write.

When we read like writers we begin to look beneath the surface of the texts to notice the moves that the writers have made and we can try out those moves in our own writing.  We can identify a particular structure or style and we can try it on. We can name a specific strategy or literary device and employ it to make our own meaning
What do you want to write?  That’s want you will want to read. 

I write poetry.  Therefore, I don’t go a day without reading poetry. Several different  “poem of the day” blogs arrive in my inbox daily. I buy books of poetry and I subscribe to several  general writing journals, as well as three poetry journals.  I read what I want to write.

We have all been in the situation where we have to write something and we don’t know where to start.  For example, if I want to write a letter to the editor in our local newspaper, I may need to spend a day or two studying the letters that have been accepted for publication out of the many submitted.  What are some characteristics that make them effective?  Which of these will I use in my own letter?

In 2011, the Columbus Area Writing Project held its first fall writing conference.  I needed to create a program booklet for this event. Even though I had been to lots of conferences and used lots of program booklets, I still wasn’t sure where to start to create one.  I turned to the many program booklets I have saved from other conferences that were similar in size and purpose to the one we were planning.  Those programs taught me how to create my own—they became my mentor texts.

When I began this blog, I read lots of blogs, not just to enjoy and learn, as I had been doing, but with the intention of being shown how to write my own blog. I paid attention to everything from layout to content, from font to use of images, from length of post to frequency and so on.

Sometimes we may adopt an entire written structure as our own framework on which to hang our words and meaning. Click here to reread my poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at Leaving School.  I studied each section of Stevens’s poem and duplicated his framework.   His poem was my mentor text. When we so closely borrow another writer’s structure or ideas it is customary to acknowledge (thank, apologize) that we have done so, usually following the title.
Other poems that are often used to practice borrowing structures are The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams and Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon.

We can also borrow a larger, big picture  as a framework.  My friend and fellow blogger, Gretchen Schroeder, after reading Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, is currently writing her humorous memoir entries on her blog, Meat Toast,  in a similar, alphabetical, encyclopedia style.

What we read can teach us much about what we are striving to write.

If we want to write, we must read.

Today’s Deeper Writing Possibility

What books, poems or other texts have taught you how to write?
What are you trying to write now? 
What texts will help you accomplish this?

Can you use one of the following poems as a framework to create your own poem?

What did you learn as you borrowed these writing structures?


  1. Hi Robin,
    As I read your blog tonight, I am getting ready to write a proposal for my school district leadership on the issue of moving to an electronic textbook inventory. I have been looking at the format and content of various proposals in order to craft the most compelling document I can. I hadn't really thought of that work as seeking a mentor text, but of course we use mentor texts for even the most mundane writing tasks!

  2. Hi Margaret,
    I am coming to the conclusion that almost everything I read becomes a mentor text, even if I am not seeking one,and even if I don't immediately use the text to help me craft my own. At some point, the words or the idea, or the structure come spilling back into my head... or I remember when I do need them.

  3. I never thought of this, but as soon as I read it so many books and writing pieces dropped into my mind. Thank you for this inspiration I know exactly where I'm going to begin something I've been thinking about for a long time.

  4. Hi Denise, I am so glad that something here inspired you. I invite you to share what you create here in this space.