Reading Like a Writer

Time to read Stephen King.pngWriters are quite often first and foremost avid readers. Many of us grew up carrying a book (and a spare or two) everywhere we went, regardless of whether we would actually have to time to read it. This immersion in the fictional worlds we craved perhaps led us to create our own fictional worlds, to fill voids that no book in existence could fill. And so we became writers to create those books.

But even as writers, we are still readers. And we should be. How can we possibly write well if we do not continue to immerse ourselves in the worlds of books? But while our love for reading has not changed, perhaps our style should. Now the question becomes how to read as a writer.

In general, reading like a writer means examining other authors’ writing so that you can apply their knowledge of the craft to your own writing, thereby improving it. The focus isn’t on the story itself or the content or message. It is on the actual construction of the story from a wide (story structure) to a narrow (sentence structure and word choice) level. You read to learn how to write. How do we actually go about doing this? Here are five simple ways to read like a writer.

  1. Read outside your genre. Writers often start by mimicking the styles, settings, and characters of our favorite authors. But the true key to becoming a writer is to grow past this stage, to find our own characters, our own voice. One of the best ways to do this is to keep on reading everything. And I mean everything. Don’t just stick with stories within your preferred genre of writing. For example, I write mainly fantasy, and while I read an obscene amount of fantasy, I also read nonfiction, historical fiction, science fiction, contemporary, children’s books, and anything else that can hold my interest. I learn so many new things and glean so many ideas from these books that I never would have encountered had I not read outside my genre.
  2. Read inside your genre. It is important to also keep up to date on the new releases in your preferred genre. Even if you don’t read all of the new books that are released, have some idea of what is out there, what publishers are buying, and what readers are consuming. This will help you to compare your book to similar books when it’s time to query (many agents prefer that you use comparison titles released within the last couple of years) and understand how your book might fit into the current market. How do you keep up to date on this? Follow people. Follow everyone. But on social media… don’t actually stalk people. Look for publishers, agents, authors, and book reviewers on any social media outlet, including (but not limited to) Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Instagram, and Facebook. Make yourself an attractive author when it’s time to market your story by knowing as much as you can about industry trends.
  3. Re-read. The idea behind this is to choose a story that you want to use as a model for your own work, to re-read it and actively observe the pattern of the plot and development of the story. Since you’ve read the story before, you know ultimately where it is going and can sit back and pay attention to the details in between. Another personal example is when I was preparing to begin my current WIP, Foxfire. I wanted to write urban fantasy, but I wasn’t sure how to structure it. I re-read some of my favorite stories within the genre, writers who are well-known and well-received (Patricia Briggs and Anne Bishop), and worked from there.
  4. Take notes. Now, I don’t care if this is directly in your book or on a notepad you keep with you while reading. But the point is to specifically notate the story with your own questions, comments, and observations as you read. This makes you an active reader (like active listening). Even if you don’t write it down, pay attention to your own thoughts and experiences as you read.
  5. Take it all in. Examine the details of what you’re reading, how each scene was composed and how it fits into the overall story. Notice the development of the characters and how the story changes them. Follow the plot arc and how each important point is achieved. Map it out, if that helps.

Now, there are plenty more resources out there for learning how to read like a writer. Writer’s Digest offers a variety of resources on writing and publishing, including on this topic. However, the biggest piece of work I would recommend today is Mike Bunn’s “How to Read Like a Writer.” He gives some interesting background and explanation in more detail than the tips I share above.

Now go forth and read books!

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