You’ve heard it before, so let’s say this all together as a class: To be a writer, you must also be a reader.
Reading is fundamental, but since you’re a writer, you don’t need to be lectured on the virtues of reading. You already know that reading is amazing. This activity expands your vocabulary, increases your exposure to new writing styles, stimulates your reasoning, and inspires new ideas. It's something you've been doing since before learning to tie your shoes or blow bubblegum.
You’re not new to reading, and that’s precisely why you need to re-train yourself to read. But instead of learning to read the ABCs, you must learn to read like a writer. In this sense, being a great reader doesn’t always equate to being a voracious one. It simply means that you’re analytical. You’re not reading for the experience, but rather to understand the mechanics of the experience.
Below, we’ll explore top tips on how to read like a writer effectively. Let’s get started.
Understanding the Reading Process
Before we dive into how to read like a writer, let's begin with how you may read currently. It's likely the way we've all been taught to read as children.
When you read as a regular reader, you're not focused on how everything in the story works. Instead, you're more focused on yourself. Specifically, how you relate to the characters and how you identify (or don't identify) with their feelings. You're exploring the world as if you're the protagonist, too. You’re trying to imagine or accept what the writer wants you to see or know.
However, when you're reading like a writer, you see both the message and the mechanics. You're not only focused on the experience, but you also observe the techniques that the writer uses to create those experiences.
Here’s another way to look at the idea of reading like a writer. When you read as a normal reader, it’s a passive experience. You’re allowing the words to wash over you. You’re not thinking deeply about the word choices that go into a particular piece of prose. You may admire that prose, but you don’t find yourself grappling with why the author chooses one set of words over another, adequate choice.
Now, you may be thinking, “Wait! I’ve done that before. I’ve analyzed word choice in the stories I’ve read. I’ve pondered why the author decided to do this or that.”
Yes, and when you did that, you were reading like a writer. You took yourself out of regular reader mode, where you’re the protagonist’s proxy or faithful companion, and instead become the author’s apprentice. This happens when you ask the author questions, instead of the story.
But how often do you read like a writer? Probably only for those books that you love so much and want to savor.
And that’s okay. We’d drive ourselves crazy dissecting every book like a writer, especially because some books would fall apart upon close inspection.
Some books are best enjoyed as a quick thrill. In these books, the authors are intent on punching their readers in their emotional guts but aren’t as interested in developing characters or weaving intricate plots.
Then, there are others that follow a tried-and-true formula where the author basically uses a fill-in-the-blank approach. Sometimes the genre demands such a formula, and that’s okay. However, none of these types of books are great for reading like a writer.
Instead, you need a book where the author has the liberty to make their own literary choices. This is where the magic happens.
When you read as a writer, you’re activating your critical eye to see how the story works, similar to how you approach reading your story.
Think of how you read what you’ve written. When you read your story, you never get lost in the story’s experience. Instead, you activate your critical eye to analyze if your storytelling is working or if there are opportunities for improvement.
That’s deep work and fortunately not what we’re advising. You don’t have to be a ruthless critic of someone else’s work. Instead, you can approach others' work by doing the following.
Read It Again
It's difficult to read a novel critically the first time. That's the quickest way to get lost in the weeds and not see the bigger picture or understand how the average reader experiences the story. Instead, read the story through. Process it. Then re-read it a second time, this time paying special attention to why and how certain elements come together.
Focus on the Technique
Ask yourself “why” when you're re-reading a story. Why did the author choose these words? That setting? Those characters? Why did the author choose to reveal the plot in the way they did? What can you learn from this technique? Stop focusing on what they said, and instead focus on why they choose to say it in that way.
Get in Touch With Your Emotions
Reading is an emotional experience. Or it should be. A good piece of literature will give you all the feels. You'll get angry with the characters, sad about their choices, and happy with certain justices. But what exactly is eliciting this emotional response? Consider how the author creates the story and shapes its characters. Why are you invested in their choices and consequences? How did the author make these characters relatable or worthy enough to root for? Pinpoint those moments so that you can build those same types of moments and characterizations into your storytelling.
Find Author Interviews
In addition to reading like a writer, you can also watch or listen to interviews where the author breaks down their writing process and delves into why they made certain choices.
This step isn’t necessary because you can still learn a lot by dissecting a novel on your own, without actually listening to the author's commentary. However, getting extra insight right from the author's mouth gives you the chance to read the book with a unique and fresh perspective.
Be aware, though, that listening to the author can ruin some of the experience for you. As you learn more about the author’s intentions, you may discover that your imagination took you on a different path. But that’s okay because, once written, the story belongs to the reader.
When reading as a writer, you must question every single choice that the author decided to keep in the final draft of the story. You must assume that it was intentionally left there to hold a clue, convey a feeling, connect ideas, and/or point to an overall theme. Here's a starter pack of questions to ask when reading as a writer, broken down into the three main elements of storytelling:
Why did the author choose this setting?
Does the setting affect the story? If yes, in what way?
How do the characters interact with the setting?
Could the setting be different? If yes, how would that affect the overall story?
Did the author develop all of the main characters in the story?
What makes the characters relatable?
How do the characters reflect the theme(s) of the novel?
How do the characters change throughout the story?
Are you satisfied with the way the characters progress or are there opportunities to do more?
What makes you care about what happens to the characters in this story?
What conflicts (internal and external) cause the characters to act the way they do?
Are the characters' choices moving the story forward naturally or is the author forcing the characters to do something that may not be natural to them?
How does the plot contribute to the theme of the story?
How does the author build momentum towards the climax?
How long does the author give between climax and resolution?
How did the author transition from one scene to the next?
How did the pacing change through the story? Do you feel like the pacing fits the moment?
Did you notice the flow of language? Did it shift to match the pace, tone, or mood of the scene?
What did you think of the author's word choice? Did it enhance the reading experience and, if so, how?
What part of the story hooked you and why?
What character grabbed you and why?
What did the author choose to show in the scene and what do you wish they did show?
How did the point of view (first, second, or third) affect the way you experienced the story?
Could a switch in point of view have improved the story? If so, how?
What stylistic choices did the author make with the prose, and how did those choices impact the overall storytelling?
What do you like about this story?
What did the author do well?
What wasn't done well?
What tone and mood do the writer use throughout the story and how does that affect your reading experience?
Be sure to defend your answer with more than “yes” or “no.” The answers to these questions will improve your writing.
Reading like a writer takes practice. After all, you’ve spent decades reading as a “reader,” i.e. the intended audience. Switch up your focus and approach content from the writer’s perspective. It will make you a better writer, without a doubt. Put the above tips into practice and you’ll see how quickly your storytelling abilities improve, specifically pacing, plotting, and characterization.