How to Read Like a Writer

Become a better writer by becoming a stronger reader

Penny Zang
Dec 16, 2019 · 3 min read

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.”

–William Faulkner

The phrase “read like a writer” refers to thinking about how a text is written, considering the choices the writer makes, and reading to learn. A writing teacher, for example, can talk all day about how to write dialogue, printing handouts and lecturing about the format on the page. However, if you really want to write your own compelling and realistic dialogue, you are more likely to learn by studying how other writers do it. Hemingway’s fiction is a great model for writing dialogue. If you need to know how to set up the punctuation in dialogue or how to format it on the page, it makes sense to open up a Hemingway story — not a textbook.

This kind of active reading requires reading to understand how the text was written. You can — and should — still read for pleasure. Reading like a writer is something different.

4 techniques to help you read like a writer

1. Read widely

2. Annotate

3. Ask questions

4. Establish your own “wise guides”

Read widely

Many readers tend to stick to the same writers and the same types of books over and over again. We can learn from all kinds of writing, though. If you usually read fantasy, try science fiction. If you generally read poetry for pleasure, experiment with short stories. Try out different genres and different authors. Pick up books that you would not usually read.

The writer Phyllis McGinley says “A bit of trash now and then is good for the severest reader. It provides the necessary roughage in the literary diet.” Variety in reading can only help you to grow and develop. Remember you’re not reading solely for pleasure here; you’re reading to learn.

Annotate

To annotate basically means to take notes. It can refer to highlighting and circling words you don’t know, but it really means writing in the margins and engaging in a conversation with the text. The intention is to help you learn how a piece of writing works.

There is no single way to annotate. Mark and highlight whatever seems important to you. Just make sure you are doing it to learn about how a text is written. Consider everything. Read and annotate over and over again. The more you look at the piece, the more you will notice.

Ask Questions

As you annotate, rather than just circling words and highlighting, ask questions that you can hopefully begin to answer the more you read. These questions, of course, will be related to how the text is written.

The questions you ask may include (but are not limited to) the following:

What is the writer doing well?

What do I like best about this piece? What is the text’s biggest weakness?

What effect is the writing trying to achieve and how successful is the writer in achieving it?

What am I learning as I read?

What am I seeing differently?

Establish your own “wise guides”

This idea is from the author Heather Sellers. In her book, Chapter after Chapter, Sellers recommends choosing six essential books to keep on your desk as your “go-to” writing resources. These are the books you will turn to when you need help with a certain concept (dialogue, point of view, etc.). These are the books you can always reread and find something new that will help you as a writer.

Where to start? Don’t just look for what is most popular. Choose your favorites. If you’re hoping to write your own novel, find the books most like the kind of book you want to write. Sellers says “To really know a book — how it’s built, its wisdom — is to read it several times. To go over and over certain passages.” Your wise guides will help you to really focus and develop as a reader.

If you are a writer, you probably do many of these things without realizing it. If you’ve ever read the first page or snippet of dialogue more than once to fully absorb the writer’s words, you are already there.

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Penny Zang

Written by

English professor + book nerd + drinking buddy. Visit me at Pennyzang.com and Twitter: @penny_zang

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