Updated: Mar 21, 2019
In every writers group, in every forum, in every book or blog about writing—you’ll find this advice: if you want to write (or write better), read. See, it’s easy for writers to get caught up in the writing process and forget what their readers experience. So for a writer, reading helps you get into the minds of readers—because then you are one. And just that will make your writing stronger.
But there’s a secret to reading that can help you cultivate even better writing.
Ready for it?
You can’t just read more—you have to read better. Consider reading as a pursuit just as important as writing, rather than simply a distraction or hobby.
But what exactly does reading better look like?
First, it doesn’t mean giving up reading just for pleasure. If you take the joy out of reading, it won’t be long before writing isn’t much fun anymore either. But there are some ways to make your reading fun and educational, in a grown up way.
How to Read Better
Approach reading for pleasure as a learning experience
Be curious. Don’t be afraid to take the writing apart into its elements and put it back together. Knowing how and why something works doesn’t have to diminish your enjoyment of it—instead it can give you a deeper appreciation.
Use your reactions as a guide
Be aware of your reactions as you read. Does a certain character strike you the wrong way? A particular scene make you feel a certain way? Why? What specifically makes you feel that way? Be as detailed as you can.
Study how it’s written
Pay attention to how the author crafts the story. Plot, character, theme, mood, tone, point of view, emotional connection, plot devices…these are the tools you know so well as a writer. Watch for them in the book, and note how you respond to them and why.
Observe the words themselves
This means word choice and sentence structure. These two components can make or break readability, clarity, emotion, and tone. See a phrase you like? Write it down. Examine the words and play with them until you know why you like them. Same for a phrase you don’t like.
Look for patterns in your genre
When you read the same genre enough, you begin to see patterns emerge. The protagonists may have similar qualities, pacing may be the same, or maybe the same crises happen in several books. These patterns can be good or bad, lending either a feeling of familiarity or of imitation, but being aware of them will make you a better writer.
Read things you wouldn’t normally read
I love this quote because it’s true. Curious authors read everything—genres, authors, and even formats you wouldn’t normally read. You may not always like it, and that’s fine. But you’ll likely pick up a technique or idea you hadn’t thought of before, and that’s what active reading is all about.
Note what your favorite authors do wrong
You can probably go on at length about all the awesomeness your favorite authors put into their books. I know I can—and do. Frequently! But have you ever thought about what they do wrong? Bestselling authors (you know the ones) in particular seem to be able to get away with doing things in their books that we mere mortals may not be able to. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying, which brings me to my next point.
Use new (or old) ideas for inspiration and experimentation
See something you like in another book? Put it in yours. Obviously I’m not talking plagiarism here or even writing something derivative. But if there’s a plot device or characterization or anything else you want to experiment with, come up with a way to make it yours. You may end up cutting it or changing it in editing, but it’s good to infuse your work with new (or new-to-you) ideas.
Skip the boring parts or even stop reading
I know this is controversial, but if you’re not enjoying part of a book, skip it. If you have to skip too many parts, stop reading altogether. But then think about why you wanted to stop reading. Did it make you feel something unpleasant? Was it just boring? Was the hero a jerk? Was the POV distracting?
Discuss what you read
The best way to make yourself really think about what you read is to have to defend your feelings or ideas about it. There are great discussions about books going on all over the place—you just have to find a place that works for you. Check for reading groups and book clubs in your area. And the internet is full of opportunities. Goodreads is a good place to start, and Google Plus has some wonderful groups. If all else fails, start your own!
Keep a reading journal
Finally, I’m a big advocate of keeping a reading journal. This is just what it sounds like—a place to track what you read and what your thoughts about it are. You can buy fancy ones like this one, or one with prompts in it like this one, or you could just use a Word doc. Or even a spiral-bound notebook, like I do. I know, I know…why not just use a stone tablet?
Reading reminds us of what we like and don’t like, how storytelling works, the thrill of falling in love with imaginary characters and lands, and the magic of a well-told story. It shows us what good writing looks like (or doesn’t look like) and how it makes a reader feel. The most important thing is that you think carefully about what you read and then apply what you’ve learned to your own writing. Your writing—and your readers—will thank you.
What tips would you add to read to improve your writing? Leave a comment below or tweet me @jenichappelle.