TTT – Read Like a Writer

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

– Stephen King

Writers need to read. It helps us to translate the world around us into written word. With every book/story/article read, we expand our understanding of the mechanics of writing and the art of storytelling. We’re lucky in that respect; we have the most enjoyable on-the-job training ever. What other professional can lose themselves in fiction and claim that they’re honing their skills?

But, it is not enough to simply read. Although it’s true that some knowledge will be osmosed subconsciously, it’s only when we really study great (and poor) writing that we gain any real insight into the art.

1. Read critically

Scrutinise every word, every sentence. Ask yourself why the author chose that particular phrase to convey their meaning? What does it reveal about the characters/setting/plot? Is there anything you can take away from it that will add strength to your own stories?

Reading the work of others with a critical eye is the best way to learn the craft of writing. It’ll help you to identify what does and doesn’t work about a piece. Writing shouldn’t be about reinventing the wheel. Follow the examples set by others and draw inspiration from them and, very soon, others will be drawing their inspiration from you.

When reading, it is all too easy to let your brain fall into neutral. This has the same effect as zoning out at the cinema; you may have followed the gist of what is going one but you’ve missed the subtle clues about the plot. Don’t let that happen. The best way to achieve this is to:

2. Keep a book journal

What better way to combine writing and reading than by keeping a book journal. You can do this in a notebook (one specifically for the journal, or in your writer’s notebook), on loose leaf paper, or even make note on the computer. Whatever format the journal takes, use it to record the following:

  • your thoughts on the work;
  • your thoughts on the characters;
  • what you liked/didn’t like about it;
  • what you thought worked or didn’t work; and
  • any interesting quotes, phrases or words you encountered.

I know writers who prefer to fill the books they’re reading with notations, highlighting interesting passages within the body of the text. I’m not one of these people. If you come near any of my books (textbooks excluded) with a pen or highlighter, I will hurt you…badly.

3. Read with a dictionary

Words are our clay. From them, we create vast worlds, vibrate people and epic adventures (or stories about people drinking in bars). English is a hugely versatile and poetic language with an estimated (although unverifiable) word count of over 1 million words (source: joint Harvard/Google study, December 2010). But, no one can know all of them and their individual meanings without help.

The more, and the wider, you read, the higher the likelihood that you’ll encounter words you’ve never come across before. When this happens, make it a point to look up the word and study its meaning. Who knows, it may be just the word you’ve been looking for your own work.

4. Read outside your genre

When we stick to the confines of our preferred genre, we miss a world of possibilities. Think about it, if authors stuck solely to one genre we wouldn’t have such great crossovers as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Books, 2009), or American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Headline, 2001). The wider we read, the more we open ourselves to new ideas and different ways of presenting our work.

Do you read with a critical eye? Has reading outside your preferred genre sparked any ideas? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments below.

17 thoughts on “TTT – Read Like a Writer

  1. I like the idea of perhaps dedicating a notebook to just my reading. I used to be one of those who enjoyed peppering the pages of my books with notes – I love going back to a highlighted page and seeing what I’ve written, why it once had meaning to me. But now that all of my reading is on the Kindle, I find that impractical. The notebook is a good suggestion.

  2. *Sneaks up on Chris’s books armed with a highlighter*

    I should write notes, i find book clubs help too because others may notice things you didn’t. Oh no. Better buy yet another note book…

  3. I have been reading outside my genre If you can call random thoughts a genre) and I have noticed that I do tend to notice writing elements I might not normally notice. Thanks again for some great tips.

  4. Great tips. I use my critique group to find good books to read, all outside my genre. Hadn’t thought of keeping a notebook but that might slow me down, in a good way. I read 2-3 books a week, devour them really.

    1. A critique/reading group is perfect for expanding your reading, especially when the group boast a mix of genre preferences.

      On a sidenote, thank you for the recommendation of “Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern. It was fascinating and now a firm favourite.

  5. I see I am not the first one intrigued by your threat of violence.

    I pay more attention to what I am reading when it is written poorly. My pet peeve is unnecessary stuff – I loathe almost any adverb, most adjectives, and descriptions of a character’s feeling. Cheesy descriptions drive me crazy too.
    It is a good idea to do more thinking about well-written books. However, there is no chance I’ll take a notebook for it. 😉

    Anyway, I still don’t read enough.

    Nice post, Chris! I really enjoy Tuesdays.

  6. Well thought out, Chris! I need to adopt the the “book journal” in my life. I’ve learned that thinking about writing and actually writing have very little in common. So often I’ve been paralyzed by the thinking only to stop myself from starting. I’ve come to realize that by actually writing is when I find my creative edge. The idea of the book journal appeals to me as it forces me to articulate thoughts about things as they occur rather than trying to conjur them up at a later date! Very good advice as always! TiV

  7. I read a number of books with the express purpose of giving the author feedback in regards to what did or didn’t work with their book and that in turn helps me to pinpoint possible errors in style in my own writing.

    It is indeed true to say that in order to learn the craft of writing we have to both read and write a lot – it’s the only way to learn.

    BTW, I’m with you re causing bodily harm to anyone who dares scribble on my book collection! 🙂

      1. I’m up for the knee breaking. Dress code is black suit, white shirt and black tie. Sunglasses are optional. There should also be a radio playing upbeat tunes while we ‘remind’ people not to touch our books. Agreed?

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