How to Read Your Way to Better Writing

by Susan Bearman

Man and woman holding stacks of books

Writers write. But writers also read … at least we should.

My own to-be-read pile is officially as tall as my house, so I’m as guilty as the next writer of neglecting the reading part of my life, but this is a mistake.

I once heard that authors write only half of a novel; readers write the other half, and every time a book is read (or reread) it is rewritten.

I think this is brilliant and I wish I knew who said it first. It reminds us of the unique synergy between writer and reader (who usually don’t ever meet) in creating the world of the story that only starts on the page, but is transformed into something greater and completely new as the words are read.

But how can we use our reading to make our writing better?

1. Renew Your Love of Reading

Do you remember the first book you ever loved, perhaps one that was read to you over and over again as a child? Or the first book you read all by yourself? Or that love story you read as a teenager that made you fall in love with falling in love?

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” — Ernest Hemingway

I’m wiling to bet there isn’t a writer, dead or alive, who hasn’t been transformed by reading. But when was the last time you got lost in a wonderful story?

If you believe, as I do, that writers do half the work and readers do the other half, then the act of reading is an act of writing.

Maybe we need a new word to describe this phenomenon, but for right now, make a writerly commitment to enjoy reading on a regular basis. Make a date with the library or that pile of books on your nightstand, and rediscover the joy of reading.

2. Read Like a Writer

Once you’ve made a commitment to regular pleasure reading, set some time aside to read like a writer. This is a completely different kind of reading. Instead of losing yourself in the story, take a step back to look at how the author did what he or she did to keep you enthralled. This is usually best done with a book you have already read.

As you read, think of yourself as an apprentice, looking over the shoulder of a master writer and learning the tricks of the trade. Here are some things to look for:

  • Beautiful language
  • Rhythm and pacing
  • Good verbs
  • Metaphors and similes
  • Transitions and turning points
  • Character development: wants, needs, goals
  • Conflict and obstacles
  • Plot twists and subplots
  • Climax and resolution

Take notes. My mother was a librarian, so I still can’t bring myself to mark up a book, but feel free to do what works best for you. I’m finding my e-reader to be an excellent tool for this kind of book dissection, but sticky notes or a plain old spiral binder work just as well.

Read out of your genre to see what other kinds of writers have to offer. Top-notch mystery writers can give you a graduate level education on escalating tension, plot twists, and climaxes.

Think you have nothing to learn from reading picture books? Think again. Great picture books writers do everything writers of adult novels do in roughly 1,000 words, often using a limited vocabulary. Rarely do adults read books more than once, but as children’s book writer Rosemary Wells once said: “All really good picture books are written to be read five hundred times.” What can we learn from picture books that will make our readers want to read our books 500 times?

Sit down and reread some of your favorite picture books or spend a little time in the children’s department of your public library looking for:

  • Relatable characters that we care about
  • The beginning, middle, and end
  • The inciting incident
  • What the main character wants
  • What obstacles get in the way
  • How the main character changes

Pacing is important in picture books, as well. Look for the page turns and ask yourself why they happen when they do. What can you learn from these page turns about where to end a chapter? Language and rhythm are also key to good picture book writing. See how the rhythm of the words keeps the story moving.

3. Read to Learn

How about a how-to? There are plenty of great books on how to write. My personal favorite is The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner. If you haven’t started your writing book library, now’s a good time.

But there are many other how-to books that can help your writing. For example, what if your main character knows something that you don’t? What if he’s a chef, or she’s a taxidermist? Maybe it’s time to read some great cookbooks or Taxidermy for Dummies. (I checked. It doesn’t exist, so if you are a taxidermist by trade or avocation, this could be the book to write. In the meantime, don’t despair if your main character is into taxidermy. This book looks like a good how-to: The Complete Guide to Small Game Taxidermy: How to Work with Squirrels, Varmints, and Predators by Todd Triplet. But I digress.)

4. Read to Learn the Business

I don’t want to dwell too much on this point, because it could be easily misconstrued, but it is important to know what is being published and where. Don’t read to discover the trends. By the time you write a “trendy” book, the trend will have passed. But there is a lot of good information you can discover by reading new releases.

Read the front and back matter for thank yous to agents and editors, often named in the acknowledgements. Look at the name of the publishing imprint to learn which houses publish which kinds of books. Know your competition, both to be able to compare yourself favorably and to differentiate yourself. It’s a tricky line to walk in a query, but the point here is that you have to know what other authors have published for your target audience.

If, as a writer, you have neglected your reading life, then you are also neglecting a vital part of your writing life. Start a GoodReads or LibraryThing account to track your reading and to look for recommendations. Make a reading plan and stick to it, and watch how it improves your writing.

Have you read a book that has changed your writing? Tell us about it.

  • Julie

    It is too easy to let the reading slide!

    I met someone last night who casually mentioned that, during her MFA, she had been told to read 12-15 books in her genre and compile a bibliography. Every month.

    Holy Moley. 12-15 books in your genre every month? How could you not learn something worth knowing?

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Julie, wow, that’s an ambitious reading program, although whenever you’re officially in school the reading quotient tends to go way up. It would be an interesting experiment to make yourself stick to such an intense reading program outside of class. My daughter basically did that with the classics during her high school summer vacations.

  • Zoe McKnight

    I totally agree. Reading a lot can only make you a better writer. It helps you figure out what works and why. My only challenge is that I tend to compare my work to what I’m reading and one of two things happens. I either read something so poor, I get delusions of grandeur and begin to believe I’m better than I really am OR I read something so utterly impressive that I’m too intimated to pick up a pen, fearful that I’ll never live up to such talent.

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Zoe, those are significant challenges. I think you need to be as objective as possible. Maybe if you took notes (both about the bad and the good) and tried to develop a system for cataloging what you’re learning as you read—sort of a do’s and don’t’s list. Let me know if you figure something out.

  • Zoe McKnight

    That is a good idea. I never thought of that. I’ll give it a go. Thanks!

  • Rebecca Burgener

    I would love to write like C. S. Lewis. When I discovered him a few years ago I read every thing I could find by him, including many of his letters. Shortly after that I picked up a book by a current bestselling author, and I couldn’t get past the first few pages. I wish Lewis had written more!

    I do enjoy reading, but mothering and trying to steal a bit of writing time pushes the reading to the wayside far too often. Perhaps I need to schedule it more often into my day.

    I will keep trying.

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Rebecca, I read more when my children were younger, but wrote less, and much of what I read was nonfiction, trying to keep up with the challenges of raising children with special needs. Finding a balance is never easy, but my writing is always more vigorous and inspired when I am able to fit in some reading. Good luck.

  • Glitch

    Great article! I used to try to do that, but would quickly get lost in the book before I took any notes of real value. Thanks for the awesome tips! I especially love the different points on what to take notes on. It’ll definitly help, especially when being stuck as to what to take note of and what to disregard :)

    I recently started finding myself subconsciously analysing the syntax of other writer’s books. Patrick Ness’ YA series entitled, “Chaos Walking” was just so enticing, that I soon found myself mimicing the sentence structure in my own writing (By the way, I totally recommend the series to all lovers of YA (it’s about a world where everyone can hear everyone’s thoughts)

    Hours earlier, I also had to write a novel study for Charles Portis’ “True Grit.” At first I thought there was nothing of value I could take away from that book (I wasn’t very fond of the story), but after being forced to analyse the diction and the syntax, I realised the reason “True Grit” is so fast-paced is because of the failure to include commas where they are due, the isolation of important details, and other little tricks here and there. It was very eye-opening, and I can’t wait to try his techniques in my own writing :)

    Again, awesome post! ‘Twas a very enjoyable and informative read 😀

  • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

    Glitch, it sounds like you do very well learning about writing from your reading. You’ve found a system that works. When I try to analyze a book on the first read through, I lose the delicious sense of being in another world. That’s why I like to do that kind of close reading the second time around. My problem is that I’m such a slow reader that reading things through once takes long enough, let alone twice. Sometimes, when I’m thinking straight, I remember to just place a little sticky tab marker and then go back and reread something that caught my writer’s eye.

  • The Florida Standard

    Welcome you for your plan. I really appreciate with you. If a person read more he will be write a lot.

  • Sarah Callender

    “I once heard that authors write only half of a novel; readers write the other half, and every time a book is read (or reread) it is rewritten.”

    Oh, I LOVE this. Thanks so much for sharing . . . and for the reminder that our “professional development” requires that we spend plenty of time reading. :)

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Sorry, I answered in another comment instead of a reply. See comment below.

  • Barbara McDowell Whitt

    Susan, Making the List by Michael Korda is a book I am glad I came across at Half Price Books. Korda has devoted a chapter each to bestsellers lists for each decade of the 20th century in his book, Making the List – A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999. As stated on the back jacketflap, “Making the list proves him (Korda) to be a fascinated student, witty observer, and canny guide to the fashions and fortunes of the bestseller list–and of the reading public.”

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Barbara, this sounds like a great find. I’ll have to look for it.

  • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

    Sarah, I think in an odd way, it takes a bit of pressure off the writer. You still have to produce excellent work—the best, if you are going to draw in your reader—but it’s kind of nice the remember that you have a partner out there. I also think it helps with the editing process, preventing us from overwriting by remembering that the reader fills in a lot of the blanks for us.

  • Cathryn Leigh

    Since everyone says that you need to read to help you write better I created a goal of trying to read a novel a month and ashort story a week. I’m doing great on the Novel. Not so great ont he Short stories.

    But I think you have my interest… perhaps I should start a Goodreads account for my reading. that way I don’t have to post it on my blog and take up my one spot a week. Plus I can post it when I finish the book rather than trying to time it… Hm… *grins*

    • Susan @ 2KoP

      Cathryn, I haven’t used GoodReads to its full potential, but I think it’s a great resource. My mom uses it to track her reading because she says she never remembers titles or authors anymore and will frequently bring a book home from the library that she has already read.

  • Shona Patel

    What an excellent post! I read and reread “To Kill a Mockingbird” to understand how Harper Lee does it. I also love Steinbeck. Francine Prose’s “Read like a Writer” taught me think analytically about books. I have piles of books by my bedside – all semi devoured. I’d rather read a good book than watch a mediocre movie or TV. Baffles me how some writers don’t read at all. Tim O’Brien (“The things we carried”) writes excellently but does not read. His library contains only his own books (many shelves, as he has been translated into several languages). This blogger who wrote about Tim O’ Brien said we writers spend too much time reading and analysing instead of actually WRITING. Tim O’ Brien writes what he knows and he writes from his heart and that’s what makes a good book.

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Hi, Shona. Well, that’s definitely two sides to the same coin, isn’t it. Reading lots of other writers to see how they do it, and only reading your own work. I think writing what you know and writing from the heart are both crucial, but it never hurts to learn something new from someone else.

  • Debra Eve | Later Bloomer

    The Kindle has changed the way I read and research. Like you, I electronically highlight passages. Every once in a while, I go through the text file Kindle creates and copy passages to Word documents — Quotations.doc, Great Description.doc, etc. It sounds a bit anal, but I usually do it when I’m working on a blog or piece of writing where I need some inspiration.

    However, last week I yellow-highlighted a health book I was reading, just like in college. Very liberating :)

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Debra, that’s great advice for using the Kindle. So far, I’ve just highlighted, but I can see definitely potential for exporting those highlights. Thanks for sharing that.

  • Tim Weed

    Great article! Especially liked the bit about reading like a writer. In fact, I think that idea is so important that I started a blog dedicated to craft analysis of books I’ve read – reading from a writer’s perspective. So far I’ve posted on Cormac McCarthy, Tolkien, Phillip Pullman, James Joyce, & Patrick O’Brian – posts upcoming on GRR Martin, Hemingway, Shakespeare, and more.

    If you’re a writer, check it out – you might find it interesting!

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      I look forward to checking out your blog, Tim. Good idea.

  • Ian

    I have been teaching writing to high school students and reading is one of things I always preach to them.

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Hard to get the message through to high schoolers, isn’t Ian. I think we need more read aloud time in earlier grades to foster a real love of reading.

  • Robin Coyle

    John R. Trimble’s book “Writing with Style – Conversations on the Art of Writing” changed me as a writer. It was the first how-to book I read and it made me look at and think about my writing in a new way.

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Robin, I’m not familiar with that title. I’ll have to add it to my TBR pile.

  • Ellen

    Great post! I was surprised, however, not to see research included as part of the reading we do… Samuel Johnson wrote, “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading in order to write. A man will turn over half a library to make a book.” (We’ll forgive his gender-specific reference, given the general wisdom of his words.) And Stephen King wrote, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write.”

    I remember watching a Steven Segal movie and relating the next plot points to my date before they happened (“First, the bad guys will come after him this way… then it will look as though the hero will win but something terrible will prevent it, but in the end, he’ll take out all the bad guys one by one, finishing with the leader of the bad guys.”) — it was our last date. (That’s okay — I’m now happily married to someone else!)

    I’ve found “Story Structure Architect: A Writer’s Guide to Building Dramatic Situations & Compelling Characters” by Victoria Lynn Schmidt a great companion to reading — in matching the various plot structures and conflict types to the novels I’m reading, I’m a much more competent “writer as reader.”

    And when the book is really good — reading analytically doesn’t even spoil the experience!

    • http://[email protected] Susan @ 2KoP

      Ellen, I think you’re right about really good books. You can read them almost any way and not spoil the experience. I guess I only implied research by saying “Read to Learn”, but you’re right, of course. Research and all the reading involved in it is almost always an important part of writing.

      My husband is always astonished when I can figure out what’s going to happen next in a movie. I’m more astonished when I can’t. Sometimes that’s a sign of really good writing; sometimes it’s a sign of really bad writing. I will also add Schmidt’s book to my TBR list. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • Pingback: When a writer needs to read like a writer « marcella purnama()

  • Pingback: | Reetta Raitanen's Blog()

  • Lisa Fellinger

    I just came across this site yesterday and have to say that there is a lot of good advice on here! I just found this article and couldn’t agree more. For the past month, I’ve been on winter break from graduate school and was thinking yesterday that while I may not have actually written as much as I had hoped over my break, I did a lot more reading than I usually do and I started doing something I haven’t done before – reading to see where my own writing could improve. I’ve read my share of “writing how-to” books in the past and a number of them have been very helpful, but the last month I’ve realized that there is just no better way to improve your own writing than looking at how other writers write.

Previous post:

Next post: