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How to Read Like a Writer

By far, the best writers I’ve ever met are the ones with English Literature degrees. This is no coincidence: these people read books like some of us drink coffee, or big cars guzzle fuel. They read fast, they read often, and they read actively.

Reading actively is the key to being a better writer.

Reading actively is the key to being a better writer. Click To Tweet

However, reading like a writer is no easy feat. It requires hard work, a sharp mind, a good attention span, and prioritising reading above all else.

How do I know? Because I’ve done it. Even during my BA, I hardly read at all. (Sorry to any of my old lecturers if you’re reading this!)

But since then, I’ve realise that if I want to be a better writer, I have to be a better reader. The two are as reciprocal as eating and cooking, as driving cars and repairing them.

To know how a book goes together, you must first take others apart. Click To Tweet

I’ve got some tips on how to read more if you feel that’s your weak spot, but if you’re ready to discover how to read like a writer, read on…

Read one book at a time

One of the keys to reading like a writer is to read one book at a time. The more books you read at once, the harder it is to immerse yourself in it, and the less likely you are to learn something.

Reading more than one book at a time is confusing. It’s like eating your starter, main course, and dessert all at the same time.

It’s something I used to do a lot as a teenager. Because of this, I seldom finished reading any of them. I also seldom finished writing anything.

Having started reading lots of books, I knew all about how to start them. Since I’d finished reading so few, I knew little of how to end them.

Reading one book at a time allows you to become more immersed in its world. You’re more likely to pick up on details you like/don’t like/things the author has used as foreshadowing.

If you’re not used to reading one book at a time, start off by reading books you already love, or ones you know you’ll love (such as by your favourite author). You’ll be so wrapped up in it you won’t feel the need to read anything else.

Read when you’re awake

You won't learn as much if you read when you're tired. Learning through osmosis isn't a thing. Sorry.

Most of us read when we’re about to go to bed. This is fine if you want to switch off, but if you want to learn something from the book you’re reading through something other than osmosis, you need to read when you’re more awake.

If you need reading to help you switch off before bed, why not save the active reading for when you’re awake, and read a short story, magazine, or some poetry before bed instead?

Make notes

The best way to improve your reading - and by association, your writing - is by making notes on what you like, what you dislike, ways they could improve the book, and anything else you can think of.

Make notes about what you’ve read as you go along.

If you can’t bring yourself to write in the margins, have a notebook with you and make notes on things you like and dislike, whether it’s a description, plot point, or character trait.

Ask questions

Always ask questions.

As you read the book, ask yourself questions (and write them down). ‘Is this character good or bad?’ ‘What are their motivations?’ ‘Is this their inciting incident?’ etc.

Return to your questions as you read and answer the ones that you can. Your answers may change over time. That’s ok—reading is subjective, and you’ll learn new things about the characters as you go.

Reread old favourites

Who doesn't love an excuse to reread an old favourite?

Reread your favourite books from the genre(s) you write. Ask yourself what you love about it, and what makes it special. What can you learn from it?

The more you read from a particular author, the more you’ll notice patterns. Are there similar patterns in your books? Can you use those patterns to sell books, or do they work against you?

Richelle Mead is an example of this—forbidden love is a theme in many of her books. This is something her readers have come to expect from her (along with the fantasy element), and she can therefore use this as a selling point.

Read the genre you write

Reading in your genre is an imperative part of being a writer.

Reading the genre that you write in teaches you what your competition is doing.

Not only that, but you learn what’s commercially successful and what isn’t, what traits/plots have been done a hundred times and will put your readers off, and what archetypes to avoid.

If you don’t write in a genre that you like to read, it will come across to your reader.

Read outside your genre

Don't just read inside your comfort zone.

To read like a writer we must challenge ourselves. There’s few things more challenging than reading outside of the genres we are most comfortable in. But these challenges teach us about ourselves, our audience, and our stories.

Some genres have very different stylings to others. For instance, you’re more likely to find purple prose in epic fantasy than young adult fiction. You’re more likely to find a sex scene in a romance novel than a science fiction novel. However, there are always overlaps. Perhaps you want to include a love story in your science fiction novel and don’t know where to start, or you’re worried your female characters aren’t as strong as your male ones. Romance, teaches us about love; that feeling we have when we first meet someone special. Women’s fiction, meanwhile, teaches us about relationships of all kinds: not just romantic ones, but familial, platonic, and even business.

And then there’s nonfiction.

Nonfiction gets a bad rep for being boring, but it can be as inspiring and heart-wrenching (if not more so, because you know the events are true), than any fiction book. If you’re interested in reading more nonfiction and don’t know where to start, here’s a list of some of my favourite nonfiction books that will help you as a writer.

Finish the books you hate

You can even learn things from the books you hate. Yes, really.

With the exception of a couple of books, I finish every book I read. While I don’t feel this is beneficial for your average reader, I feel it is beneficial for us as writers. Possibly even more beneficial than reading books we love.

Just because we dislike something, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something we can learn from it. Even things we deeply hate have positive traits to them. For example, I dislike A Song of Ice and Fire because of the writing style, but I admire George R.R. Martin’s world-building skills.

Discuss what you’ve read

Discussing books is a great way to find out just how differently people interpret different parts of a book.

You’d be surprised how often books divide people. Scenes, characters, and even entire books can be read completely differently by the closest of friends.

If you think it will help, why not join/set up a book group? Make sure the books they read are appropriate to what you write though. Joining a literary fiction book club if you write science fiction isn’t going to be as useful to you as joining one about science fiction or even fantasy.

Check out your local library, as they often have book clubs, and if they don’t, most will be happy for you to start one.

If you’d rather do one online, Reddit, Goodreads, or even Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf are good places to start.

Track Your Progress

Tracking your progress helps you to keep track of what you've read, what you've learnt, and what you need to read next.

Use a book journal or a site like Goodreads to track your reading progress.

Set yourself a reading goal just a little outside of your usual comfort zone, and use this to motivate yourself.

Don’t aim for 100 books if your average is a book a month.

Aim for something realistic but challenging, like 24 if you usually read 12, or 36 if you usually read 24.

Analyse what you’ve read

Analyse everything.

When you’ve finished the book, make a note on how long it took you to read, and write down some overall comments. If it’s part of a series, look at the bigger picture. If it’s a standalone, does it work, or should it have a sequel?

You can either do this in your book journal, or leave a review on Goodreads. Reviews help authors to increase their profile and sell more books, but if you’re going to write something negative, remember to be diplomatic. There’s nothing worse than someone saying they don’t like a book without giving a reason why.

Over to you

What tips do you have on reading like a writer? Share your tips in the comments below for fellow writers 🙂

Inspire a friend
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ABOUT
Kristina Adams

Kristina Adams is an author of fiction and nonfiction, writing and productivity blogger, and occasional poet. She has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Derby and an MA in Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University. When she's not writing she's reading, baking, or finding other ways to destroy the kitchen.

Her latest book, Productivity for Writers, is out now.

5 Comments

  • 19th January, 2017 at 09:19

    I’ve read 3-4 books per week since I learned to read. Rain or shine, my mother took us to the library every week, and as I had three siblings and we were allowed four books each, that was a choice of sixteen books per week. I don’t have a literature degree; mine was in philosophy. I think that this might be generational, though. My generation didn’t grow up with the internet and we all read books, so regardless of our field of study we were au fait with literature. My grandfather, who left school at 14, could spell perfectly and use the subjunctive correctly, which is more than most contemporary writers can. Your advice is excellent – it’s just very sad that it’s needed now.

    REPLY
    • 19th January, 2017 at 20:23

      Wow, that’s some serious reading Cathy! I think the Literature degree is more coincidence than anything – those with a Literature degree read more because they have to. The rest of us don’t have to, so most of us these days don’t. I have known writers who don’t believe in reading to improve their craft and this saddens me. It’s truly is reading that makes us better writers.

      REPLY
  • 17th January, 2018 at 23:19
    Bonnie S Kinney

    I too like to read an actual book. I always have reference books around for my regular interests like herbal remedies. And then I must have a novel to read even if the only thing available is something I don’t really enjoy. I always read to the end. I normally read a book every week or two but the last one was so boring (I won’t name it) that it took at least three weeks to get through. I have to say I read more analytically when I don’t like the writing. Thanks for the tips.

    REPLY
  • 26th June, 2018 at 06:54
    Mux Inger

    I’ve noticed writers (I know several) read books differently because they are looking to steal techniques from the masters rather than find truths. A literature professor friend of mine was surprised by the mercenary nature (his words) of writers’ reactions to great writing when he attended a writer’s weekend recently. Most of the writers I know recognize the “sacred truths” in great writing, but see it as a by product of word play and the imagination. They don’t begin a project thinking, I’m going to tell it how it is. They discover things in their writing much the way readers of their writing do. Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

    REPLY

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