Read to improve your writing

If there’s one piece of advice every writer has heard, it’s that reading is the best way to learn how to write.

I know from experience that it’s good advice. I truly believe that part of what has made me a good writer and, now, editor is the fact that I’ve spent most of my life inside the pages of one book or another. However, there’s a difference between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. Reading becomes much more effective once you know how to read to improve your writing.

What Does It Mean To Read Like A Writer?

Writers approach books the way painters approach paintings. They tilt their heads to consider the picture from different angles; they get up close and stand far back; they admire the big picture as well as the brush strokes.

Reading like a writer means reading critically, beyond “I liked/didn’t like this book/story/essay.” When a writer is reading to improve their own craft, it means they’re keeping an eye on the fundamentals (story structure, scene building, dialogue, character development) as well as considering the overall experience of the work.

Taking Notes Is Important.

Even if they’re only mental ones, making a note of what worked and didn’t work in any given book is important for a writer. But even more important is making note of why.

Why did you respond well to the main character? What about the climactic scene was so gripping?

Try reading with a pen nearby to make notes in the margins. Or, if you’re like me and marginalia feels like blasphemy, keep a notebook or Post-Its on hand to jot down thoughts you have while you’re reading.

Read What You’re Writing . . . Or Don’t!

A lot of writers find it helpful to read in the same genre that they write. It can be a good way to learn about the tropes and customs of your genre, which you can then choose to embrace or subvert.

But some writers find that what they read tends to bleed into what they’re writing too much. If that’s the case, reading outside your genre can still be helpful if done critically. In fact, sometimes reading outside your genre can be more beneficial.

Personally, I think memoirists and other nonfiction writers benefit from critically reading fiction. Sometimes elements like character arcs and dialogue get lost in the relaying of the facts. However, the most interesting nonfiction I’ve read are the stories with well developed literary elements.