How to Read Like a Writer
Forget about genre. And notice choices.
You don’t need to be a voracious reader if you want to write well, but it certainly helps. I had a friend, someone whose writing I really looked up to, who told me point-blank one day: “I don’t read.” And then they laughed. This freakishly talented writer (who will go unnamed) is the exception that proves the rule. And it was funny because… I do read. Most people do. Writing well is imitation at first, and most of us learn to imitate through reading. A lot of reading.
In case you haven’t heard, Medium is hosting an essay contest this summer. The prize? $50,000. (Not that this is about money. This is about art.) You’ll find all the details here:
Introducing The Medium Writers Challenge
Featuring judges Natalie Portman, Roxane Gay, Saeed Jones, Susan Orlean, and more
If you’ve decided to participate, maybe you’ve already begun drafting your essay. Maybe you’ve finished, and you’re going back through what you’ve written, trying to figure out if it’s any good. It seemed promising in your head — you’d begin with something revealing and funny, flash back to a moment in your past that set the stage for the person you are today, and help us see ourselves reflected in a version of you.
But somehow, our intentions never quite match the words on a page. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you compare the two. (“I thought this would be… better!” I’ve said to myself multiple times while staring down a Google doc and eating stale pita chips.) You can try to keep going in the face of your own insecurity, but at a certain point, it’s worth stepping back. Accept that you’re stuck.
And when you’re stuck? Read. It will remind you why you’re spending all this time staring at a computer screen. You’ll read sentences and think “I could do that.” You’ll read sentences and think “How did they do that?” You’ll remember what’s possible. You’ll wonder what’s impossible.
Reading like a writer really comes down to two things: reading as widely as humanly possible and noticing a writer’s choices.
1. Read what no one else is reading
A lot of writing well is about trusting your “instincts,” but instinct is just another word for having read a lot. It’s the word for having read so much, in fact, that you subconsciously check everything you write against an internal library of things you’ve read. “Has it been said before? By whom? How much context do I need to give, and how much can I leave unsaid? Is this cringe or relatable or funny or sad or somewhere in between?” You’ll remember how you’ve reacted to everything you’ve read — even if you don’t think you remember, you’ll remember. You’ll begin to measure your reactions to your own work against how you experienced the work of others.
So… what should you read?
Everything, pretty much.
If you’re writing an essay, read great essayists: Chloé Caldwell is one of my favorites (she’s really blunt and funny), and Brian Broome’s essays are written like short films. Samantha Irby is hilarious, and Mary H.K. Choi has a voice like no one else. My colleague Amy Shearn and I just led a workshop on personal essays (you can watch the recording here). Throughout the workshop, we mentioned a few of our favorites essays from around Medium — you’ll find links to all of them in this roundup:
How to Write an Essay Everyone Wants to Read
Five steps to creating a meaningful personal narrative
But most importantly, read outside of your genre. If you want to write an essay, read things that are not essays: short stories with main characters who are very young or are already ghosts; poems that read like riddles; stories with self-obsessed characters who spend too much time staring at their phones; novels written hundreds of years ago that are more plot-driven and cliff-hangery than prestige TV; novels written two years ago that were never written up in the New York Times and are published by indie presses that have the freedom to print things they like without becoming obsessed with how much money they’ll make.
In one of my favorite pieces of writing advice, Rebecca Solnit explains this better than I can:
Read. And don’t read. Read good writing, and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches.
If that quote is all you remember from this post, that’s okay with me.
2. Notice choices
As you go, pay attention to choices. Everything about writing is a choice — we don’t have to communicate using these strange and ancient symbols. And our rules for arranging said symbols? They’re mostly made up. People inherited this system or were born into it and eventually felt compelled to make sense of it. We think there are rules when there are none. This is true of most things in life.
In one of my favorite books, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes, “We forget something fundamental as we read: Every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t.” The lines only feel inevitable to us because we can’t see what led to them: extraneous words that were cut, broad adjectives exchanged for pointier ones, familiar verbs swapped out for surprising alternatives. Everything you read (including this, right now) is a web of overlapping decisions.
Reading like a writer means imagining yourself as the creator of what’s in front of you. It’s a process, a little like acting. Find one sentence or paragraph that stands out to you. Ask yourself: Under what circumstances would I ever write a sentence like that? (Or a paragraph or an essay.) What would make me start a sentence or paragraph that way? What does this writer seem to be aware of? What do they care about? What is the emotion or intent behind their words? Why did they use this word and not another, similar word?
You’re no longer simply reading to absorb the character, plot, or voice. You’re no longer letting it wash over you, grateful to spend some time with imaginary people from hundreds of years ago or narcissistic, all-too-real people who can’t stop looking at their phones. Instead, you’re trying to figure out how the thing was built. You’re trying to peek beneath the surface.
Writing is a process of making choices and then continually recommitting to those choices (again, sort of like acting). Every choice has a ripple effect — it informs the sentences and paragraphs that come after it. Sound like… life?
As you read, try to decipher the choices a writer has made and how they’re working within the constraints of those choices. The more you do this, the more you’ll pick up on little tricks you might use in your own writing. You’ll also find things you’ve tried to do that are done better: “Oh, they’re starting a bunch of sentences with the same word or phrase to build a rhythm.” Or “They’re mentioning something they said three paragraphs ago as a callback, a way to connect what’s happening now with what happened before.” You’ll start to realize the writers you admire are just like you: making choices, trying to focus, picking up threads they put down two pages ago and trying to weave them into something new. And the next time you have a choice to make or a problem to solve, you’ll think back on your reading. You’ll have a few more tools with which to solve that problem or make that choice. And then you’ll be able to keep going.
Do you have reading recommendations? Books, writers, essays, blogs, or tweets that made you a better writer? Share them in the responses! And for more on the Medium Writers Challenge, head here. If I didn’t work here, I’d definitely participate.