How to Read Like a Writer

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Books with pencils, for a post on how to read like a writer

“If we want to write, it makes sense to read—and to read like a writer. If we wanted to grow roses, we would want to visit rose gardens and try to see them the way that a rose gardener would.”

– Francine Prose

If you ask ten writers for their top tips on becoming a writer, nine of them will probably tell you that you have to read. And it’s true. I firmly believe you can’t be a good writer without also being a wide and voracious reader. But did you know that there’s a difference between how to read as a reader and how to read like a writer?

If you’re new to reading as a writer, here are a few ways to approach it.

Read as widely as you can

Reading within your genre or area is important, but you shouldn’t restrict yourself. Reading a wide variety of genres and styles will broaden your horizens, give you more ideas, and make your own work stronger. If you always read sci-fi, pick up a romance novel. If you want to write fiction, read poetry as well. And so on.

Read authors who are nothing like you

Do you only read authors whose life and stories reflect your own? If so, you’re limiting yourself. To read like a writer is to read people who are completely different from yourself. Challenge yourself to read writers of different genders, nationalities, backgrounds, cultures, religions, and ages. They’ll all have something to teach you, and each story you soak up will make you a better writer, too.

Make notes and annotations

Some people will probably be shocked at this, but I love scribbling in books. Making notes, highlighting and underlining passages I adore, and dog-earing pages I want to return to again and again. Doing this helps me to read more consciously, as well as giving me an easy way to return later to the bits that spoke to me.

If you can’t bring yourself to annotate an actual book, why not make notes as you read? Another option is to use an e-reader – many e-readers, like Kindle, allow you to add notes to the digital text.

Ask yourself why it works

A good piece of writing can make you feel things. Did you read something that made you laugh, cry, think? Then ask yourself how the author achieved that effect. Do a close reading of the passage in question. Examine word choice, sentence structure, perspective, description, and voice.

In other words, go a step beyond noticing what the author has done, and start paying attention to how.

Write reviews

A good book review is harder to write than you think. If you want to read like a writer, have a go at writing your own reviews. You don’t have to publish them, if you don’t want to (though you could start a book review blog or post them on your social media, if you wish!)

Writing a review will push you to look closer at the text. It’s not enough to say “I liked it” or “I thought it was a load of rubbish.” As a reviewer, you have to identify why a book works well or doesn’t. This process will train you to look more critically at your own work, too.

Reread

Readers tend to have strong opinions about rereading and whether it’s worth doing. I’m a big proponent of rereading. If a book particularly grabs me, it’s not unusual for me to read it two or three times over the course of a few years. That’s because, if you reread, you notice something different each time.

Want to really get into the nitty-gritty of why your favourite book is just so good? Pick it up again and give it a reread.

Read like a writer and your work will improve

“Read” is good advice if you want to become a writer. But if you want to go a step further, you need to learn how to read like a writer. By reading widely, paying close attention to the nuances of the text, and learning how to approach work from a critical perspective, you’ll equip yourself with the tools you need to make your own writing better in the process.

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[…] There are many things I didn’t do enough of this year, some for reasons of lockdown and pandemic-induced depression, and some because I was simply too busy. One thing I didn’t do anywhere near enough this year was read. I know, I know – bad writer! […]