On Reading Like a Writer


Everyone knows that if you want to be a writer, you need to write (and re-write). But another important part of being a writer is reading. In fact, every writer starts off being a reader first and foremost.

As a child, you begin recognising letters, words, sentences, paragraphs until whole stories emerge. Growing up, some of us continue to read stories and start crafting our own, be it fiction or non-fiction. Reading, therefore, is an inherent part of writing.

But there’s reading and… reading like a writer. I am a voracious reader and will read almost anything you put in front of me (wine bottles and cereal boxes included!). That reading, although done with intention – to understand something, for the thrill of what happens next, to escape into another world and so on – is not always close reading, however. When you read like a writer, you need to read actively, to ‘read carnivorously’ Francine Prose, the author of the acclaimed book Reading Like a Writer, puts it, that is, to read for what can be admired, absorbed and learned from.

How do you then read as a writer?

The way to start reading like a writer is to, first of all, re-read a favourite book, and to make notes from it. This is something I learnt on Huma Qureshi’s writing course The Quiet Words – a course I highly recommend if you want to start writing creatively. Make notes about what you like in the book, find and underline the words and sentences that stir you, and write them down in a notebook. BUT don’t do this if it’s not your own copy or if you think that it’s a sacrilege to ‘disfigure’ a book, instead ONLY write them down in a notebook or an online document, or if you’re reading an e-book, highlight the relevant section and email them to you (I do this on my Kindle). Look at how the sentences that stirred you have been constructed – look at the placement of the words. Let them sink in.

When you’re re-reading a book, you already know what the plot is so you won’t be distracted by it as such. Instead, you can focus on the mechanisms that the author use to move the plot. Is it in linear or chronological fashion? Or do they jump from one time-frame to another?

Hone in on how the writer has crafted a particular character or characters. How is the protagonist brought to life? How do you know about their motivations, their desires? Why do you like or hate them? What are the techniques that have been used to achieve this?

Look at what works in terms of dialogue. How realistic do the characters sound? Can you imagine someone talking in that way? Are they saying what they mean? Read the dialogue out loud – taste the words in your mouth. Write down the ones you think work but also the ones that don’t work. This is all part of your learning process.

Crucially, don’t read like a writer before bedtime. Carve out time for reading in your schedule just as you would for writing or going to the gym. Start in a chunk of 15 minutes and go from there.

You will find that reading and re-reading the books that you like or by authors that you admire will not only give you ideas but it might make you emulate them in your own writing. This is fine as you start out but as you experiment with writing and as you start to read like a writer more widely, you will find that, almost subconsciously, you start to develop your own writing style, your own voice.

As if by magic.

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