Stephen King said it best. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” And as writers I think we can all say that both of those things are fun (okay, sometimes challenging, but overall fun). So how can we be better writers by reading?
Think about it. Every time you sit down to read, you are essentially doing research and learning, whether you notice it or not. You could be learning a new genre, discovering a new plot line, finding new words, and learning a new structure. There are so many different things to experience in a new book.
Now the key is figuring out how to unpack a new story into learning opportunities so you can improve your own writing. As writers, some people are fine tuned to remember everything that happened in a story and the things that made it work. I am not one of those writers. I love to write out the lessons and my notes which is why this technique works so well for me.
Here’s how to take full advantage of your time so you can read like a writer to improve your craft.
Read like a reader first
Take off your writing cap for a moment and read the book for fun. Get swept up in the excitement of a new book or get a few pages in and decide it’s not for you. Without thinking strategically while reading, end each session by jotting down your reactions to what you just read. Don’t go back for references and don’t try too hard. Just make note of your thoughts and feelings about what is happening. This will help you remember your gut reactions later.
It’s time to read like a writer
After finishing the book, it’s time to go back to the start and read it again. Bring out your first round of notes and study the questions you asked or the feelings that were evoked. Was everything solved? Are there missing pieces? What did you expect and how were those expectations changed? Ask questions about what you felt was resolved or things that maybe had no effect on the story at all. Use your gut reactions to understand why you continued reading or why you decided to stop reading and write them out as lessons for your future writing self.
I love my little highlighter pen. I use it generously when I go through what I’ve read. Sometimes I think I’m going to highlight a whole page at once.
Think about what sort of things you’re going to take note of, such as quotes, plots, emotions, reactions, structure, etc. and consider color coding with highlighters. Once you highlight a section, keep a separate notebook for notes or write in the margins.
Take notes on your highlights
Why did you highlight this particular section? What sort of thing did you like or dislike here? What lesson did you learn? These notes can be as detailed as you want, but make sure you understand for yourself what they mean. Then, think about how you can take this lesson and apply it to your own writing.
Study the characters as you read
Which characters are you drawn to and why? Which ones drive you crazy? How do they change throughout the story as events happen? Did they act out of character in places? Think about the different characteristics that you liked or didn’t like. How can you apply those characteristics to characters in your story?
“Edit” the story for yourself
I say “edit” loosely. You are not meant to go out and fix a published novel. However, you can take a look at it from an editing perspective. Find a scene that you maybe didn’t particularly like the first time around. Why didn’t it work for you? How can you make it better? Try to rewrite that scene to convey the information you wanted or deliver the message in a better way. You’ll have practice writing a scene in your own voice and learn how you can make your own writing better through editing.
Do this throughout the book if you can. Loosely “edit” sentences that might not make sense to you or could be said in a different way. This gives you writing and editing practice while learning how to develop scenes. Remember, you are not actually editing someone’s published piece to send back or critique in public, but rather practicing for yourself and learning.
Think back to a book you’ve read that you could dig through for some writing lessons. Read a different genre and study how their style can apply to what you’d like to write. Take a book that might be a little more challenging to go through and see how many new words you can learn. Reading is learning and the trick is to now use that in your own writing. Read like a writer and improve your craft!