When I first starting taking creative writing classes, I was told by multiple professors that I would need to learn to “read like a writer”. I’d been an avid reader my whole life, so it didn’t seem like a particularly difficult goal. However, this somewhat vague directive can be more challenging than it seems.
Even if you read for pleasure all the time, learning to read critically and to pay attention to the finer details of writing technique while in the middle of a narrative requires a major change in how you approach the activity. There’s also always that fear that analyzing everything you read will take the fun out of it.
Despite these setbacks, becoming an attentive reader is a foundational lesson in your writing education. In order to write well, you need to see examples that you can emulate while you develop your own tastes and style. Otherwise, staring at a blank page can quickly become overwhelming, and you’ll have a hard time assessing your own work to determine if it’s any good.
The best thing you can do to become a more writerly reader is to practice. However, here are five more specific tips that will help you get more out of the next book, essay, short story, or poem you pick up.
1. Read Widely
When you’re a writer, you read to learn the craft as much as for pleasure. If you just read the same type of books over and over, you’re not likely to expand your repertoire and discover new techniques or styles that you might want to experiment with yourself.
So, don’t be afraid to read outside of your comfort zone. Read the classics, but read contemporary fiction and nonfiction, too. If you’re a prose writer, read poetry to learn about language and rhythm. Poets can learn narrative techniques and characterization from novelists.
For literary authors, it can even be beneficial to read popular or commercial fiction to learn about how to build suspense or keep readers hooked. Sometimes even TV shows incorporate foreshadowing and other plot devices that you can put in your writer’s toolbox.
Also, make an effort to read outside your experience, not just outside your genre preferences. Seek out books by authors who are from different regions or countries, who are of different races, and who have different beliefs than you.
2. Read With a Pen in Your Hand
Just reading isn’t likely to reveal many insights you can utilize in your writing. It’s too easy to start consuming the words without considering them.
Plus, you can’t remember every interesting phrase you come across, and it can be hard to analyze through-lines such as theme or structure if you don’t take notes along the way.
Your reading notes can be an excellent resource if you’re feeling stuck in a future writing project. You’ll have them to refer back to when you need inspiration or during revisions when you’re trying to refine your draft.
There are many different ways to go about this practice, depending on your preferences. Some readers are comfortable writing in the margins, while others find this idea horrifying.
If you don’t want to mark up your books, you could use post-it notes or keep a reading journal. Just make sure that when you’re reading, you have a pen handy.
3. Ask “Why?” (A Lot)
If want to read like a writer, then when you come across a sentence or paragraph that is particularly appealing to you, ask “why?”.
If you read something that surprises you, ask “why?”.
And if you’re bored, or angry, or confused, ask “why?”.
Understanding how an author elicits certain feelings or achieves specific effects will give you the tools to do the same in your own writing. This may apply to something as small as the sound of two words together, or something as significant as the overarching plot structure.
4. Pay Attention to What You Don’t Like as Much as What You Do Like
When you’re slogging through a book that’s boring or just doesn’t speak to you, it’s easy to dismiss it as inconsequential, at least where improving your own writing is concerned. On the contrary, books you dislike can be just as helpful for refining your craft as your old favorites are.
To return to my previous point, when you come across something in a book that rubs you the wrong way, ask “why?”. If you can identify what makes one novel boring or cheesy (for example), you can avoid that mistake in your own work.
5. Reread Your Favorite Books
Even if you’re actively trying to read with a critical eye, you can’t take in every element of a book at once. When you come across a piece of literature that really resonates with you, schedule it for a reread.
High-caliber books aren’t usually great because of a single well-executed feature. The most exciting and well-paced plot becomes a drag if the characters are flat. It’s hard to admire beautiful descriptions of the setting if the dialogue is stilted and awkward.
On your second (and third, and forth) reads of your favorite books, identify one element to focus on. Perhaps you track the development of a theme, or diagram the structure. That way you can really hone in what is so exceptional about that piece of literature, and recreate that in your own work.
When you start to pursue your study of writing, you may begin to hear the phrase “read like a writer” a lot. Understanding what this means is not only helpful for navigating the waters of creative writing in academia, but also for developing your taste and craft.
Here are a few key tips to keep in mind:
- Read widely. You never know where you might find inspiration or what you might learn by adventuring outside of your go-to niche.
- Read with a pen in your hand. Whether you love marking up the margins, covering pages in sticky notes, or keeping a reading journal, identifying key lessons from what you’ve read is important.
- Ask “why?” to better understand other writers’ technique and how they accomplish certain effects in their work.
- Pay attention to what you don’t like as much as what you do like. Knowing how to avoid bad writing is just as important as knowing how to write well.
- Reread your favorite books. This gives you the chance to explore each aspect of the writing separately to understand how all the pieces work together to make the big picture you love.
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