Good writers read good writing. I say this a lot. People often ask me what they can do to improve their writing and this is always my answer (along with regularly practicing your craft).
Stephen King once said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” So, if you won’t listen to me, maybe you’ll listen to one of the most prolific writers of our generation.
But you may be wondering exactly how reading more can improve your writing. You may be wondering how to read like a writer.
Reading like a writer means you’re not simply reading for fun. Sure, you can do that when you’re at the beach or your first time reading an article or book. But the second time around (and, yes, reading like a writer means rereading) you need to not just read a piece of writing, you need to study it.
This process will look different for different folks because it depends on what kind of writer you are. If you’re a fiction writer you’re going to want to study a novel or short story’s character and story arc. How does the author make the character relatable (or despicable)? How does the author organize the plot?
What does she do to make the dialogue feel natural? Does she write from multiple points of view? If so, how does she pull that off without confusing the reader? How does she use descriptive details to bring the story to life?
Read the Book (or Article) You Want to Write
Toni Morrison said that we need to write the book we want to read. But I think you also need to read the books you want to write. This applies to fiction and non-fiction writers alike. And it applies not just to books but to blog posts, articles, and essays, too.
If there’s a publication you want to write for, spend time reading the essays and articles they’ve published. As you’re reading, ask yourself these questions:
- Why do you like this work? Is it the writer’s voice? Is it her attention to detail? Figure out what draws you to this piece of writing and consider how you can use these same tactics in your work.
- How does the writer open the piece? How does she grab the reader’s attention? How does she deliver the information the reader needs to understand the story’s context in an interesting way?
- Consider the colorful quotes included in the article. What questions do you think the writer asked to get such an interesting response?
- If the work is a personal essay, brainstorm your own life experiences that could make for a compelling piece. How does the writer pull the reader into the story?
- What’s the main point of the piece? How does the writer convey this point?
- Study the structure of the piece. What would an outline for this story look like? Could you use a similar structure for a piece you’re working on?
- How does the writer use descriptive details in a captivating yet concise way? How does she show and tell?
- Pay attention to words and phrases that move you. Why did they stand out to you? Write the words and phrases down in your idea book and write down what made them special.
How do you read like a writer?