The Townhouse of Ideas

How to Read Like a Writer

Hey there again!

As I mentioned last time, I dislike writers who tell novice writers to “Read!” without elaborating on the idea.

So, I wanted to talk more about reading like a writer. The last time, I talked about what a writer should read. This time, I want to talk about how to read like a writer.

There’s a difference between reading like a reader and reading like a writer. A reader is reading a book in order to enjoy the book. A writer reads a book not just for enjoyment, but also in order to find out how the writer is doing the magic we know as writing.

A good writer must be an analytical one. We must encounter a book like a student encounters a textbook. We have to be here to learn.

So, here’s a writing exercise that will teach you how to read like a writer:

1/ Find a used copy of your favorite book, preferably one with huge margins. You’ll need huge margins, because you’re going to be writing in the margins.

2/ Get some pencils for writing in the margins, underlining sentences, circling words, and putting stars or check marks near your favorite scenes, lines of dialog, etc.

3/ Make a Word file entitled “What I Am Learning From My Favorite Book,” and save it.

4/ Slowly, start reading your book. Read a scene, then sit with the scene. Write down in your Word file:

a)   What did I like about this scene?

b)   Is there anything I didn’t like about this scene?

c)   What is this scene trying to accomplish?

d)   Is this scene well-paced, or does it go on too long (or is it a little too short)?

e)   What have I learned from this scene about the book, especially concerning the characters?

f)   What can I, as a writer, learn from this scene?

5/ As you’re reading the scene, underline any words, phrases, or sentences you like/love/hate. Write your impressions in the margins. Star or check mark any paragraph you want to remember.

6/ Slowly but surely, work your way through this book. Analyze every scene until you’re done.

At the end of the book, ask yourself:

1/ What have I learned about writing from this book?

2/ Are there any approaches to writing used in this book that I want to borrow in terms of my own writing?

I know it sounds like slow work—and it is—but I can promise you, after you do this with your favorite book, you will read every other book/story out there the way a writer does, as opposed to the way the audience does.

I’m not trying to make more work for you, but I’m telling you, it will save you a lot of time and effort in the long run. You’ll be miles ahead of other novice writers who only know how to read a book like a reader.

I still use this methodology myself on occasion. One day, I discovered that I had writer’s burnout, which is writer’s block writ large. In desperation, I took The Haunting of Hill House and did a deep read of the novel with my husband. By the end of the book, I had the germ of an idea for my book Song to the Siren.

I’m going to use the metaphor of stage magic. Let’s see ourselves as wanna-be magicians, standing backstage, looking at all of the other magicians. Learning how the other stage magicians do their tricks will make you become a magician too. All good writers are that novice magician waiting in the wings, watching the master magicians doing their job. Even if it’s a trick we know, even when we know how the tricks are done, we still look and listen to the stage patter, because there is more to the act than just sawing a lady in half. Once you see the magician as someone you can learn from, as opposed to someone who’s an unapproachable demi-god, you’ll be able to become a magician yourself.

Then someday, you’ll be the person the novices are looking at.

Someday, you’ll be the one that the novices are asking for advice.

When that day comes, I hope you don’t blow them off by telling them to “Read!” without elaborating on what you mean by that. 

Instead, I hope that you’ll dig back to the days when you were struggling to do your magic, and you’ll be generous enough to reveal a few of your tricks to those who admire you.

Because then, you’ll truly be a master magician, instead of just a professional one.