How To Read Like A Writer
Many authors are familiar with the “Golden Rule of Writing”: In order to be a good writer, you should also be a good reader. But I’ve recently spent some time on writing forums and Reddit threads where other writers have challenged this idea. Comments typically vary based on personal experience and style. Some people agree, others don’t. While I respect other writers’ personal experiences and styles, my position has never changed: reading is part of the process of improving as a writer. But I can sympathize, to an extent, with those who disagree. Besides, who has the time to dedicate to parsing a text? Sometimes I just don’t have the energy for literary analysis, or I get intimidated by the idea that I’m a very small fish in a very large pond, populated with more talented and experienced fish. Regardless, we all deserve space to grow, so in this post, I’ll present a few tips I’ve picked up on how to read like a writer.
Before we dig in, perhaps you’re wondering, “What does it mean to be a good reader?” Truth is, answers may vary. For some, being a good reader is straightforward, like a mathematical equation. Reading speed multiplied by comprehension equals your reading level, for instance. But for me, being a good reader is about engaging with a text, a skill I’ve struggled with in the past, but have managed to develop over time. When I was younger, I read entertaining stories about kids like me, doing the kinds of things that kids like me did. As I’ve matured, my ability to understand people who are different from me has grown, and now I can engage with a more diverse range of styles and ideas.
The process of improving your writing through reading is cyclical: more engagement means more opportunities to see the world through a different lens, which leads to a desire to engage more. As a result, you learn to write engaging material for your readers, and who doesn’t want that? So let’s take a look at a few things you can start doing now to improve your writing through reading.
1. Commit to challenging yourself via your reading list.
One way to apply this to your own reading and writing is to pick up a book in a genre different from what you write. For instance, fantasy reveals that anything is possible; sci-fi teaches the art of worldbuilding; mysteries instruct pacing; and romances teach how to write interpersonal relationships.
Aside from switching up genres, you can look for authors or characters who provide you with a new perspective. Check out an author from a country you’ve never visited, for example. Making an effort to empathize with characters or authors who are different from you can help you improve the way you write your own characters.
2. Read books about writing, and take notes.
Even experienced authors can benefit from reading and re-reading books on writing. I recently read Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, and it changed the way I approach my own writing forever. Other popular options are books like Stephen King’s On Writing or On Writing Well by William Zinsser. I’ve also found Scribbler’s Writing Passports to be incredibly useful for targeted aspects of writing. Even if you’re just going back for a refresher on an area you’ve worked on before, your writing will be better for it.
If you’re cringing at the idea of taking notes, not to worry! My suggestion here is simply to look at your WIP(s) through the lens of the methodology book you find to be the most useful. Keep a notebook handy while you read, or take advantage of the Kindle’s option to highlight and take notes. I will add that this tactic works best for me when I put my new (or refreshed) knowledge to use right away, so if you’re the same, make this a writing warm-up.
Just remember, the “rules” in these books aren’t meant to be followed to the proverbial “T.” As someone once pointed out to me, following them too closely can make your writing formulaic, and your readers want to see what makes your writing unique!
3. Identify the areas where your writing needs work and look for authors who do those things well.
Ask yourself: what makes good writing good? I realize this is subjective, so start by examining a novel by an author you adore. Pay attention to why the writing works for you. Is it the flowery vocabulary? The sentence structure? Jot it down. Personally, I’m fascinated by language, so I love anything that plays with words: puns, irony, alliteration; you name it, I’m in. This method does require me to be more critical of my own writing – which can be uncomfortable – but forces me to think like a reader and make changes accordingly. For example, I struggle with social commentary in my own writing; I fear that it won’t contribute to the plot or be applicable to my characters. So I pay attention when authors are skillful at adding to the narrative through exposition and anecdotes.
If descriptions are difficult for you, for instance, highlight or underline passages that immerse you in the setting or characterization. Same goes for writing convincing characters, dynamite dialogue, and perfect plot lines. Then apply it to your own writing by re-reading your work. Does it pull you in? Will it engage your readers? If not, what can you add or change to take your writing to the next level?
In order to be a good writer, you don’t have to be able to go toe-to-toe with the authors you admire from the get-go. Those authors are unique and skilled in their own ways, just like you are. But for me, one of the most beautiful things about being both an avid reader and a writer is that I have endless source material to read and learn from. Happy reading and writing, everybody!