You’re a reader. And a writer.
I know this because you are reading this blog post, and that makes you a reader. And chances are if you read a lot, you’ve probably also thought about writing.
If you want to be a better writer, you have to be a better reader. Reading actively with intention and attention is what makes one a better reader.
Reading teaches you how to write better — all reading, in any genre. However, there is a difference between casual reading and active reading. There’s a difference between lying on the beach with a novel in hand reading for pleasure, and reading like a writer.
If you want to learn how to write better, read actively with intention.
How to Read a Book Like a Writer
Read when you are awake
The upside. I break this first rule regularly. I read at night. I don’t write at night. I do most of my writing in the mornings when I’m at my most lucid, and my ability to focus is at its peak.
Reading while awake and not tired maximizes your ability to retain information, take notes in the margins, and question the author’s ideas and how they plot out a story.
The downside of reading at night
You may fall asleep — which can also be the upside — depending on how you look at it.
I read for an hour or two, and then I’m lulled to sleep. For me, it isn’t note-taking time. I want to read, and this is the time I have. I don’t beat myself up about this, and the best I can do at night is read with a highlighter in hand.
Read, then highlight
I’m not a fast reader. I like to read every sentence and ponder things — this is active reading.
When something strikes you that you want to take a deeper dive into later, or maybe it fits into something you heard on a podcast, and you want to connect the two thoughts through writing, highlight it with a pen or highlighter.
Depending on what’s sitting on my bedside table at that moment —a pen or a highlighter — which seems to change a lot, I use what I have to mark ideas that hit a nerve.
As you read, highlight or underline and fill the margins with comments that arise as you are reading — mark the passages, sentences, and portions that stand out to you. And either fold down the corner of the page or put those little post-it tabs sticking out of the page so you can easily find the portion that made an impression on you.
I fold down the corner of the page; I like to keep the act of reading as minimalistic as possible — requiring the least amount of “things” while I read.
I get so into a book that I don’t always want to take out a notebook. But if I can highlight and jot down in the margins what it is that struck me, what it is that I want to remember for later implementation, I can quickly come back to it later.
You won’t remember all the ideas you read about, think about, and want to, eventually, blog about after you finish the writing you’re currently working on, so highlighting, and coming back to it later is essential and will give you endless concepts to write about.
I underline my favorite sentences, my favorite paragraphs, and write notes in the margins.
When finished reading a book, transfer
When I am finished reading a book, I then go back to my notes and copy everything that I have highlighted — notes, paragraphs, sentences — into a word document or the notes app on my phone.
I keep it organized by book title and author.
This system is an easy way to go back and get a quick summary of what struck me about that particular book. It is also a great way to find ideas to blog about.
I will often go back months later and review my notes.
I’ll find one sentence that still sparks my interest, open up a word document, and write a blog post about that one sentence.
Read your favorites more than once
Reading your favorites more than once is how writers learn to write.
I can read the same book three or more times and get something different from it with each read, depending on what is going on in my life.
When you re-read a favorite, you know where the story ends, allowing you to concentrate on how and why the author got from point A to point Z. Since you know the ending, the element of surprise is gone, enabling you to drill down on the structure the author sets up from beginning to end.
When you read a favorite book several times, you get used to the author’s voice and can decipher their rhythm, cadence, and tone more intimately.You internalize their voice.
A book has to catch you at the right time. The first time I read A New Earth, I had no idea what Eckhart Tolle was talking about, it may as well have been written in mandarin. I didn’t get past the second chapter, so I put it away for six months to a year.
After a major life change, I picked it up again and understood every word as if I had written it myself.
Read authors who write in your genre
You need to see what your competition is up to, and what makes their writing style attract readers — what makes them commercial.
One writing teacher I had went so far as to write out whole chapters of his favourite author’s work to understand how they write. I have done this, and it works. It is a quick way of breaking down the foundation of how your favourite author structures a sentence; it’s an exercise that allows you to figure out what you love about their writing style.
Read authors who write outside your genre
Reading outside your genre challenges your mind, offers examples of different writing styles, and will spark your creativity.
As a writer, it is a ton of fun to try to write in a different genre than you usually would. It is an exercise in creativity, and you may be pleasantly surprised by what you come up through trying a genre that is outside your wheelhouse and find you have many styles as a writer.
Don’t stop reading. Have fun, but if you want to write better, read better.