How to Read Like a Writer

by Helga Schier
August 6, 2019

As a writer, you’ve probably attended your fair share of writer’s workshops and belong to at least one, if not several critique groups. And that’s great. You should be a part of the writer’s community. 

But workshops haven’t always been a dime a dozen and not every culture believes that you can learn how to write well by taking one writing class after another. Long before there were creative writing degrees, writers studied their craft by reading the work of their predecessors and contemporaries. Looking for their place among their peers and those who came before, writers would analyze other’s work in search for those nuggets of insight or style or craft to emulate, stimulate and innovate. 

That’s what we call reading like a writer. We think reading is an essential writing skill, because unless you are a reader, you’ll have a much harder time to become a good writer.

So, put down your proverbial pen once in a while and put on your reading glasses instead.  

Start by reading other people’s work in your genre. Preferably works that have been (critically and/or commercially) successful. Preferably recent works that have published in the last five years. 

The publishing industry changes slowly, but it does change, and what worked ten years ago might not work today.

Read actively, and by that we mean, pay attention to your reactions as a reader. What made you laugh, cry, scratch your head? Where did you agree, disagree, arrive at an aha-moment?  What surprised you? What made you uncomfortable and do you think that’s what the writer wanted?  

Pages marked with stickiesEquip yourself with a bunch of post-it notes and mark the sections that stirred these reactions. Once you’ve read the whole book, go back to these sections and analyze them. What was it that resonated with you? What caused that reaction? A word? An image? A character’s dialogue? A cliffhanger that made you race through the next chapter? A detail about a character that made you know exactly what kind of person s/he is? Write down your findings.

Once you’ve analyzed your very own subjective reactions, read the book a second time. This time, look for very specific elements.

Look at the beginning. How did it draw you in? Did it give you an immediate idea of the world you’d be living in? The characters you’d meet? 

Check out the ending. Will it stick with you long after you’ve closed the book? 

Find the climax. Then trace your way to that climax from scene to scene to observe the slowly rising tension.

Take a few dialogues and read them out loud. Does it flow naturally? Can you distinguish the characters just by the way they speak? 

How did the writer bring to life his characters? Find the spot where you knew just what kind of person you are dealing with. What made you recognize him/her? A behavioral pattern? Something they said or didn’t say? The way they related to others?

Look at chapter endings. How does the writer urge you to keep reading just one more chapter? 

Just think about these elements. Take notes. 

Once you’ve identified just a few such elements and the way they were successful in one particular book, read another, and then another. Recognize the strategies, the patterns that evolve. Then emulate and innovate to make them your own. 

That’s reading actively and analytically. That’s reading like a writer.