How to Read Like a Writer

Become a better writer by becoming a stronger reader

Penny Zang
The Startup
Published in
3 min readDec 16, 2019

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“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.

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Penny Zang
The Startup

English professor in SC and book nerd. Debut novel: Doll Parts, forthcoming from Sourcebooks, 2025.