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.

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