Reading as a writer – What you need to know

Writers must read. And the more you read the better. As a writer you should be reading in a certain way, at least some of the time. In this article I’ll cover what you need to know on reading as a writer. The advice applies to poetry as well as prose.

Why you should read

For most writers, reading comes as naturally as breathing; and they couldn’t live without it. But if you’re not a natural reader there are lots of reasons why you should take up the past-time.

  • Teaches us how to use language 
  • Shows us how other writers have approached topics and themes
  • Expands our vocabulary
  • Teaches us grammar and punctuation
  • Shows us how stories are constructed and characters brought to life
  • Familiarises us with different genres and their conventions

Obviously, it depends what you are reading. The penultimate point applies mostly to fiction, and the last bullet point applies to people who are reading different genres. This brings me onto  the next point. What should writers be reading?

What to read

First of all, you should be reading the type of work you are writing. So if you are writing short stories, you should be reading them too. If you write poetry you should also read it. 

Secondly, I believe that you should read both within and outside the genre you are writing. So if you are writing science fiction, you should read science fiction but you should also read other genres, for example literary fiction and perhaps murder mysteries. The choice is up to you; all I’m saying is that you shouldn’t read solely the genre you’re writing.

Some genres are better than others at teaching certain things. For example, romance novels are generally all about the characters and you can learn a lot about characterisation from them.

Some people don’t read books in the genre they’re writing in, stating that they don’t want to be influenced by it and perhaps subconsciously plagiarise it. I don’t agree with this school of thought. I believe that you need to read within your genre in order to know what the conventions are, what has gone before and what is currently going on in your genre. Sometimes you think you’re being original when you’re not – you’d only know this if you’re familiar with your genre.

As well as reading books that have recently been published, you should read classics too. There is a reason why classics are classics. However, if you don’t have much time and you have to choose between classics and current books, then I’d prioritise current books because it’s more important to know what’s going on and being published currently in the literary world than to study yesteryear.

Now we come to the crux of the article: How to read as a writer.

How to read

There are different ways of reading. On the one hand we have reading for pleasure and on the other we have reading to learn about stories and language and how they’re put together. It is the latter I’m referring to when I talk about reading as a writer.

As you become more serious and experienced as a writer, you will find that even when you’re trying to read for pleasure you inevitably find yourself analysing the text. This is the price of being a writer. However, let’s talk about the times you want to deliberately read as a writer. 

  • Choose your reading material wisely. Don’t just lurch from text to text. You want to get the most out of the time you spend reading.
  • Read one book at a time. You’ll get the most out of each book if you give each one all your attention.
  • Read when you are alert and can give the text all your attention. For me, this is in the morning because of my M.E. My energy goes down over the day and I can’t focus later on.
  • Read closely and take your time. Or read as quickly as possible. It depends what your goal is. I once set myself the goal of reading 100 pages of fiction every day and it was great for covering a breadth of novels in a short space of time. I was still analytical about it as I was reading though, thinking about how the author was constructing the story.
  • Make notes as you read. You can do this in the margins or you can do it in a notebook or on worksheets. I love those created by the productivity specialist David Seah. Download his book outliner forms here. What notes should you make? Well, you could note anything that strikes you: beautiful language or effective dialogue, for example. Or you can read with a focus on a particular element, for example how the author uses setting or approaches characterisation.
  • When you’ve finished, analyse the structure of the text. Does three act structure fit the novel you’re reading? Can you identify the inciting incident and plot points?
  • You’ll get the most out of a text if you can read it twice because you can now see each page within the context of the whole. Also, you know the story now and are not reacting with surprise to every plot twist. On the second read-through be even more focused and analytical.
Book Journal for Reading as a Writer
  • Record the books you’ve read in order to track your progress. I love this Book Lover’s Journal, available from Amazon. There is plenty of space to write a summary and review of each book and there’s a scorecard for each one. You can also record the books you’ve read on Goodreads, and set annual reading goals.
  • It can be useful discussing the books you’ve read with others, as other readers will give insights you might have missed. Ideally, join a book club.

In greatest detail

To fully analyse a text, work from the micro to the macro. What I mean by this is you should cover everything from the word level to the overarching structure of the text. Some things are best examined during the reading process, and others are best examined once you’ve finished. On the word level, study passages of text to see what word choices the author has made. Good writing chooses appropriate words and is economical with them; there are no redundant words.

Moving higher, look how the author addresses all the elements of story, for example how they create characters, use setting and description, employ dialogue. What do you think of the point of view? Then, as described above, analyse the structure of the text. Think about why the author started where they did, why they chose to end where they did. Why were characters introduced at those times? Are the chapters ordered optimally? Is there a prologue? Do you think it was necessary? Then think about the character arcs of the protagonist and other main characters. Have these characters changed as a result of the story?

Finishing texts

Should you finish every text you start or is it okay to put it aside if you’re not enjoying it? I would say this question applies most to novels because with poetry and short stories the time it takes to finish it isn’t long so you can grit your teeth and bear it. With novels, if it’s a classic or otherwise lauded as a work of literature I’d be tempted to finish it. Unless it’s a huge tome like War and Peace, that is! It’s up to you though. If you often find yourself putting books aside perhaps you should force yourself to finish the next few.

Reading goals

I recommend setting yourself reading goals. You could set a number of pages per day, or an annual number of books. Or you could set yourself to read one poem per day or one short story per week. These are all reasonable goals. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve them, though. 

Conclusion

Reading as a writer is about being mindful of what you’re reading and reading with purpose and analysing what you’ve read. You do not have to go to all the lengths described above, but if you do I guarantee you’ll be glad you took the time to do it!

The picture below illustrates the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer!

Tell me your thoughts in the comments!

Reading as a writer
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