It is a generally accepted fact that reading is one of the best ways to spend your time.
Who doesn’t love curling up around a favourite book after a hard day? Or being so consumed by a fictional world that reality is all but forgotten? For writers though, reading has an added dimension- the chance to engage with your craft.
There is certainly some truth in that.
But what does it mean to read like a writer? And how is it different from reading like a reader? Well, it means to be a more discerning reader. A writer, while reading, is not completely lost in a story- a part of their brain is constantly observing and analysing details of the work. This includes things like technical finesse, techniques, themes, and much more. This is the kind of observation that is often recalled while writing.
When you read as a writer, you notice and recognize all the details and tricks of the trade that can greatly enhance your own writing. But how does one ‘read like a writer’? To answer that question, we broke down the process and put together a list of things you can do to enhance your skill as a reader, and subsequently, as a writer.
Why should you read like a writer
So why should you read like a writer? Well the benefits of doing so are manifold, but here are some of the most important ones
To understand your craft
The work of the writer essentially revolves around one thing- words. The skill of a writer can be measured by how well they manipulate words. Reading other people’s writing allows you to observe and analyze how they use words. Technical finesse includes the structure of the story and the sentences, characterization, and atmosphere, which is essential to good writing. Observing it will expand your understanding of the craft of writing, and leave you with an enhanced toolkit to tackle your own.
To expand your literary vocabulary
Reading like a writer, very simply, expands your understanding of what is possible. You will be introduced to new concepts both in terms of content as well as the form itself, that help you better comprehend your own writing and what you want out of it. Reading something from a genre you have never explored before can push the boundary of what you think is possible. The same thing can happen while exploring form- for example, reading absurdist theatre can completely shift your expectations of how plays can be written.
To open yourself up to new experiences
This is the classic cliche’ about reading – which parents are constantly telling their children. But it’s true! Reading, in general, exposes you to intellectual and emotional experiences that you may not have imagined existed. The challenges to your worldview and understanding can spark a lot of creativity, which is good for your artistic process!
Audiobooks are a great way to explore books, especially if you don’t get enough time to dedicate to reading. Many books are available in audiobook format online, and you can listen to them while commuting, cooking, or doing any other work.
How to read like a writer
Now that you’ve decided to try and read like a writer- how does one do it? Well, here are some things to keep an eye out for.
How did the author hook you?
At what point in the story or book or script did you make the decision to keep reading?
Often, that decision is not conscious and happens when your curiosity as the reader has been aroused early on in the work. Pay attention to the opening passages or pages of a book- how has the author intrigued you, and how are they keeping you engaged? The technique used to capture a reader’s attention is known as a ‘hook’ and there are many kinds. So take note of the hook!
Pay attention to the structure of the story, and keep track of it while you read. The traditional story will have a fairly clear beginning, climax, and conclusion, but there can be complex networks of subplots and undercurrents even within this basic framework.
Keep an eye out for how things are conveyed. The writing style of the author is the unique voice that defines their work. No two authors are exactly alike, or for that matter, even two books written by the same author are not alike.
Paying attention to the writer’s voice will enable you to take something different from every work you read.
Vocabulary and Phrasing
Look for interesting and unusual phrasing that makes you look at something with fresh eyes or elevates the ordinary. Good writing often uses words that have the exact meaning required in the context. Pick out any such word you notice- what difference would it make to the effect if an approximate synonym was used instead?
Characters constitute one of the most important elements of a story. Pay attention to how a character has been developed and given depth. Track character arcs, and how the characters interact with the world and people around them. Often, different aspects of a character will be revealed through different relationships. How do they look and talk? Do all the characters sound the same or do they have distinct voices? How has the author achieved that? Think about whether your mental images of them are clear and vivid. How has that been achieved? Keeping track of all of this will provide insight into the process of building a character.
Sentence structure helps establish the tone and pace of a piece of writing. Are all the sentences the same length? Does that create a monotonous beat that makes the story lose spark? Often you will only consciously register sentence structure if there is something wrong with it. Ideally, it should provide a seamless and unconscious rhythm.
Grammar and Punctuation
If done right, the typical reader will not notice grammar and punctuation, but they make up the cement structure on which the rest of the writing depends. Take a passage from the book you are reading and rewrite it so the punctuation marks are all incorrectly placed. Is that not jarring? It takes away from the very essence of the piece. Now read the original again- do you see how the punctuation subtly dictates tone and pace?
Description and Dialogue
Note the balance between description and dialogue and how seamlessly they flow into each other.
If there is no dialogue and long stretches of description, does it affect the pace? How? What effect does it have on you, the reader? Also, think about the effect if there is a long stretch of only dialogue.
Finding the balance between the two extremes is important to keep the reader interested.
Read, read, and then read some more!
The more you read, the more discerning you will become, and the easier it will be to observe and analyze the individual ingredients of the book.
When you are reading a book, keep a notebook or a journal next to you, and take note of what piques your interest, a passage you like, or even break down a character or story element. How you keep this kind of journal is up to you, and over time you will discover what kind of keeping track and analyzing works best for you.
Taking notes in the book
If you don’t want to keep a notebook- consider- and yes, I know this is blasphemy for many book lovers- lightly underlining and taking notes in the book. Use a pencil!
Fix a time
If you have twenty minutes to spare every morning, use them to consciously read like a writer. Like in many things, consistency is key, and once you build the habit it will get easier to do it every day.
For a writer, it is essential to read every kind of writing- from established classics to upcoming authors, and across genres, time periods, and styles. If you start with something you enjoy reading, it will be easier to build your reading muscle, to then take on more challenging works.
Hopefully, these tips will help you get more value and insight from whatever you are currently reading. An important thing to remember is to have fun. There is no point in being an expert reader if you’re stressed about it. Remember that writing and reading are about the joy of words and the wonder of discovery, so don’t lose the love of it.
So to come back to the timeless advice of Ernest Gaines, remember the six golden rules of writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write.”