How to read like a writer

Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write. 

– Annie Proulx

We’ve all heard how important reading is to writers: to hone their skills and broaden their imagination. But as usual, writers aren’t so great on explaining the “how” to do anything. Most of us read for pleasure, to escape from the real world and experience new situations and people.

So how do you take a book and really learn from it as a writer? Here are six tips on how to approach your favorite book like a teaching tool:

1. Read the book at least twice. The first time you read a novel should be to just enjoy it. You’re going to be reacting emotionally to the characters, the setting, the twists and turns. But when you reread, you can focus on the actual words and work to understand how the author did what she did – and successfully so.

2. Takes notes. There’s nothing more maddening than not being able to remember a specific detail that spoke to you or a page number where something crucial happened. So as you read, write those moments down so you can come back to them later! Highlight, annotate in the margins or keep a notebook close by if you don’t want to mark the actual book.

3. Don’t read before bed. To read a novel with this level of analysis and attention, you really need to be refreshed and awake. Save that time before bed for another book you’re just reading for pleasure. You don’t want to miss something because you can barely keep your eyes open.

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4. Read inside and outside your genre. If you write fantasy, reading other fantasy novels will obviously show you the dos and don’ts. But writing is writing and there always lessons to be learned about story structure – whether it’s science fiction or romance. Or you might be wanting to add a romance scene to your science fiction in which case studying the former will help.

5. Discuss. Host a book club or even a quick phone conversation with someone who had also read that book. Talk about the best parts AND the worst parts. You never know when someone else’s insight will spark an idea for your own story!

6. Mimic but don’t plagiarize. There’s nothing wrong with identifying a specific scene, detail or piece of dialogue that your favorite author did well and trying to do that for yourself. It’s a great exercise to sharpen your skills. You can mimic the style and execution, but make sure the words and ideas are your own.

Most of us find our own voices only after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. 

– Neil Gaiman

So now that we’ve discussed how to approach an exercise like this, next week we’ll dive into the specific questions – the what, why, who, where, and when – you should ask yourself while reading to learn and improve as a writer. Stay tuned!

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