If writing is the weightlifting, then reading is the protein that builds the muscle.

The best writers are the most avid readers.

Reading for pleasure allows us to subconsciously pick up on the ingredients for a successful story.

When we read actively, though, we pick up on those ingredients faster and can therefore improve our writing faster too.

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How to read more actively

Stop daydreaming as you read

We’ve all started reading only to find that we’ve gotten to the end of the page and don’t recall a word of what we’ve read.

When you find yourself in this situation, it’s because you’re letting your mind wander.

It could be because something in the book has triggered a memory in you; it could be because you’ve got other things on your mind (good or bad), or it could be because the book isn’t holding your attention.

Whatever your reason is, you won’t learn from what you’ve read if you can’t even remember it.

The next time you find your mind wandering, go back and start that section again.

Pull your mind back to the book.

If you’re struggling to concentrate because you’re tired, go get some sleep.

If the book sucks, put it down and read something else. If it’s a book you need to read but you’re struggling with, read it in small doses so that it doesn’t put you to sleep.

Focus on one book at a time

Reading more than one book at a time means that you’ll not only take longer to read each book, but you’ll retain less because you’re flitting between different stories.

Focus on one book, and immerse yourself in its world as much as you can.

For nonfiction books that are heavy-going, break it up with short stories or poetry. That way, you’re still reading, but you don’t spend all your reading time on a difficult (and possibly boring) book.

It can be difficult to keep going when you’re reading longer, more difficult books, but if you find them useful, it’s worth taking your time on them.

Finish as many books as you can

There will always be books that bore you senseless and that you can’t finish.

However, you will learn things even from the books that you don’t enjoy.

The books that we don’t enjoy can teach us just as much about what we (and therefore our readers) expect from our writing. It can also help us with stylistic choices (particularly what to avoid if it’s sending you to sleep), and with character or plot issues.

A book I read last year started off well and had incredible world-building, but the characters were unrealistic and downright infuriating. The book was also poorly structured with just 6 chapters over 300+ pages. I forced myself to keep reading, and it taught me how important characters are to write a story that connects with readers, and how not to structure/end a book.

Make notes

Whether it’s in a book journal, in a Goodreads review, or in the margins, the more notes you make on a book the more you’ll learn from it.

Make notes on what you enjoyed or didn’t enjoy about the book; anything you felt was done well or wasn’t as impactful as it could have.

To really learn from what you read, you almost want to dissect it like you would for if you were studying English literature.

Many of the strongest writers I’ve met have been English literature students or graduates, and this is no coincidence.

Even when I ran Heart of Glass, the strongest articles—and the ones that required the least editing—were written by English literature graduates, even if they had no journalistic experience.

Compare and contrast

Compare books from the same genre, by different authors, or from the same series and see what you can learn. How do the characters differ? What’s different about the writing style? What could you adopt in your own writing (or avoid in your own writing)?

By all means compare your work to that of other writers too, but remember that your writing at the start of your journey will be very different than that of a writer who’s been around for over a decade.

Every book you read has a new lesson you can learn if you look hard enough.

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Each book that you read helps you to become a better writer. Each book that you write will be better than the last. It’s a constant, never-ending process. And you know what? That’s what I love about it.

Over to You

What tips have you got for reading more actively? Which books have you learnt the most from? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!