4 Ways for Writers to Become Better Readers

4 Ways for Writers to Become Better Readers

4 Ways for Writers to Become Better ReadersAnyone can read a book, right? We all become better readers just by reading, right? Learning to put letters together into words and understand what they say—learning to read—that’s a learned skill. But once you’ve pretty much mastered that by fourth grade, you can read anything. There’s no skill to reading a novel. What is there to understand, after all? The writer does all the work so the reader doesn’t have to. In short, all readers are created equal.

Think that’s true?

To some extent, it’s a surface belief we take for granted. But it’s not true. Simply reading fiction is one thing. But reading it well is a learned skill that requires some amount of experience and even dedication from the reader.

This is important for writers to understand—for two reasons:

1. Not All Readers Are Created Equal

The subjectivity of art aside (to some extent), this is going to be a crucial factor in helping you recognize the right audience for the type of books you are writing (something we’ll be talking about more in a future post).

2. Writers Must Consciously Seek to Become Better Readers

No one should be more experienced in fiction—in all its forms—than a writer of fiction. The more skilled and aware you are as a reader, the more skilled and aware you will be in communicating with your own readers.

Today, we’re going to examine how you can improve your own reading skills and then take that awareness of your personal reading experiences to the page.

Why Reading Fiction Is a Learned Skill

Early on in my career life, before I knew many other writers, I would hand my books out for critique to family members who were not experienced fiction readers. Initially, many of their responses puzzled and confused me. They were questioning things that I knew from my own reading were common fiction techniques (one person even rejected the use of a first-person narrator, saying they’d never seen that before). Quickly, I learned that the quality of feedback I received varied greatly depending on the reader’s own experience.

It’s easy to forget—especially for those of us who started reading heavily at a young age—that we had to learn the customs of fiction. We had to acquaint ourselves with everything from scene breaks to rapid-fire dialogue to POV changes. We didn’t start out with Cormac McCarthy; we started out with Nancy Drew.

Writers often bemoan—with real curiosity and confusion—why it is that so many “bad books” become bestsellers. We’ve all done it: picked up the latest rage only to shake our heads and swear we could surely write a better book than this ourselves. And yet it’s a bestseller—in all the airports and grocery stores. Why is that?

Easy. Because many of these books are written to appeal to the greatest possible audience—readers of all levels of experience. Books that are written to the highest level of reader are books that are aimed at a very select—and very limited—audience. How many of us really enjoy James Joyce? And yet he is undeniably a skilled author, worshiped by those who have the dedication to learn how to read him. Absurdist philosopher Albert Camus observed:

Those who write clearly have readers, those who write obscurely have commentators.

As writers, it should be our goal to learn to read as well as possible. Not only will this equip us with the tools to write better ourselves, it will also help us realize that the burden of a good reading experience does not rest entirely on us. Nick Hornby, author of About a Boy, pointed out:

We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they’re badly read, too.

Please note: this is no excuse for poor writing. Many of us (*raises hand*) would love to believe that whenever someone dislikes what we’ve written, it’s just because we’re too genius for their poor little brains to get it. The only way to truly know whether or not you’re becoming an experienced writer is to first become an experienced reader—someone who has read so many different kinds of books that they have the personal context and reasonable objectivity to make accurate judgments.

4 Ways to Become Better Readers

Few people become writers without being passionate readers and without wanting to become better readers. But we can all get lazy. (Yeah, I admit sometimes I’d much rather curl up with fast-and-easy junk-food fiction rather than Mann or Dostoevsky.) Here are four reading resolutions you can make this year that will help you improve your reading skills on the way to become better writers.

1. Challenge Yourself

We all have a favorite genre. It’s comfy there. It punches all our buttons. We love it. But reading just one thing all the time is like spending your entire life in your hometown: your perspective is inevitably narrow.

Reading should be pleasurable, but it shouldn’t be merely pleasurable. Push yourself. Read beyond your comfort zone. Read in every genre. Read the classics.

Let me say that again: read the classics. After I graduated high school, I decided I would read all the classics in my local library. I alternated a classic author for every contemporary author I read. At this point, I’ve read my way through the alphabet to Sir Walter Scott. It has been a difficult, sometimes tedious, but always rewarding journey.

I guarantee: if you can get through the entirety of William Faulkner, you will have gained an education all its own.

2. Improve Your Vocabulary

Very often, when people think of “high-level books,” what they’re really thinking is “high-level vocabulary.” This is, of course, a hilarious oversimplification of the complexities of truly great literature. However, it’s still a valid point. If you don’t have a good vocabulary, you’ll often be lost in these stories.

Writers today are often encouraged (by Internet grammar software and SEO widgets) to write “readable” fiction—which simply means fiction that doesn’t contain words most people won’t know.

But you’re a writer. You write words. You love words. You need to know words.

Great literature will challenge and expand your vocabulary. If you don’t know a word, look it up. I used to keep a list tucked in the back of my book, then look up all the words the next day, underline them in my dictionary, and write out the definitions. I don’t do that anymore (insta-dictionary on Kindle is a lifesaver), but it was an exercise that has indelibly shaped me as a writer.

3. Re-Read

The most complex books are not ones you will master, or even appreciate, in one reading—especially if you’re reading “up” to a level higher than your current skillset (which you totally should be). Even if you don’t initially enjoy an experience with a book, it’s often worthwhile to go back for another try.

I first read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights when I was 18 and 19, respectively. I didn’t much care for either. I gave Jane Eyre 2.5 stars and said “I was unable to identify it as a treasure worth re-reading.” Wuthering Heights fared a little better: it got 3.5 stars but was deemed “doubtful that this will ever be a book to enjoy upon countless re-readings.”

For various reasons (mostly because Writer’s Digest commissioned me to study and annotate Jane Eyre from a writer’s perspective), I did end up re-reading both—several times. And on each reading, my understanding of these amazing masterpieces grew a little clearer. Both are now among my favorite books. If I’d given up on them after the first reading, I would have missed something wonderful—and my own narrow skills as a reader would never have had a chance to expand.

4. Trust Your Authors—Until You Don’t Trust Them

Inexperienced readers can be very judgmental. This is doubly true when those readers are writers (ahem, my teenage reviews of the Brontë sisters, above?).

Judgment is a closed door, never an open mind.

In your reading (and viewing), try to be what I call a “forgiving critic.” Don’t turn your brain off, but try not to enter a book with the preconception that you know better than the author. Put yourself in their hands from the beginning. Take the chance on trusting them. Give yourself the opportunity to see the world through their eyes and fiction through their technique.

Several Short Sentences About Writing Verlyn KlinkenborgIn his excellent book Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg reminded:

One of the hardest things about learning to read well is learning to believe that every sentence has been consciously, purposely shaped by the writer. This is only credible in the presence of excellent writing.

Do not, however, miss that last sentence about excellent writing. Just as you shouldn’t enter a book with cynicism, you also shouldn’t leave it with blind faith. Don’t check your brain at the front cover. You’re a forgiving critic, remember? If you don’t like something, acknowledge why it’s not working for you. It could well be your skills haven’t reached the point where you can appreciate what you’re reading. But it could also be this author doesn’t know quite as much as he thought he did either.

Learn from your authors—both those you aspire to emulate and those you have grown beyond.

***

Perhaps the most-quoted bit of advice from a writer to writers about reading is Stephen King’s:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

For writers, reading should be about much more than just sitting down with a cozy book that requires as little brainpower as possible. We all have the right to indulge in some delicious junk food from time to time. But on a regular basis, we need to be feeding our brains a purposeful and nutritious diet, one that helps us grow healthy skillsets—as both readers and writers.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How are you challenging yourself as a reader? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Daeus Lamb says:

    I wonder what you’ll think of my strange habit of almost never rereading anything. The fact is, I’ve never re-read a book and appreciated it more. I always appreciate it less. I’ve reread a handful of books and, yes, those times were instructional, but I always get much more out of it on the first read.

    Perhaps I’m a freak of nature. 😛 I do know I read things very slowly and thoroughly on the first read.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, I’m not a huge re-reader either. I re-read a lot as a kid, but these days it takes unique situations (i.e., research) to have me return to a book. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t intend to. I have a bookshelf full of books I intend to reread. 😉

  2. I didn’t read fiction for almost 15 years after getting burned out in college. Now that I’ve discovered I want to write fiction I realize my knowledge of fiction is sadly lacking. Inspired by some of your past posts about what you’ve been reading, I created a list of 52 books to read over the course of the year. It’s the only kind of New Years résolution I can get behind. I think your recommendation to read outside our favorite genre is spot-on. So I’ll be working my way through fantasy, sci-if, farce, detective stories, westerns, and travel journals (My WIP is romantic suspense). Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. Good post. The only books I’ve reread are Katie’s. Rarely do I want to reread a book. But I do see the value in revisiting certain ones for study.

    As a newbie the best thing I’ve discovered was this blog and your books. The second is reading. The third has been reading more widely.

    One of piece of advice I remember is to read more widely. Read everything. Good books, bad books etc.

    I’ve been reading more historical fiction (also because of Katie), fantasy, Sci-fi. Usually I like crime fiction, thrillers, mysteries, but branching out has been eye opening. Reading only a few type of books would bore me to death. Literally.

    Jeff Wheeler’s Kingfountain series has been great. The Riyria Chronicles by Michael J. Sullivan is sensational. I don’t believe any two people write books the same. Everyone has their own brand of storytelling, good or bad.

    This is definitely going to help my writing.

  4. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    Oh, yeah! This post is right on.

    I have been perplexed and somewhat frustrated by a few (only a few!) of my beta readers who believe that I am writing with a vocabulary too far above my intended audience. I am perplexed because when they have pointed out specific words that they had to look up, I recognize these words as old friends that I met as a child reading “Black Beauty,” “Beautiful Joe,” Kipling’s “Just So Stories” and “Jungle Books,” “The Wizard of Oz,” the works of Ernest Thompson Seton. Thornton W. Burgess, and Albert Terhune, and on and on. My beta readers are a mix of writers and non-writers, and most of them have at least the level of education and professional achievement that I have (some of them more), and they are a mix generationally as well, some of them contemporary to my age, some young enough to be my children, others old enough to be my parents. My vocational and avocational experience is varied and somewhat unusual, but that’s probably true for most of them, too. So I don’t know where this ignorance is coming from. I don’t have any intention of fostering continued ignorance, especially

    I am an avid reader and delve deeply into historical topics. I gobble up anything that reveals the roots of 18th and 19th Century invention and discovery ( determining longitude, measuring the wind, prospecting for coal deposits in England by identifying fossils found in known coal deposits by species, experiments to discover what the northern lights are and how they occur, how Robert Louis Stevenson’s family designed and constructed all the lighthouses in Scotland which made them the first family of civil engineering, – it goes on forever). Besides the fact that I love this stuff, I read most of it to research my next writing project.

    I balance non-fiction with fiction, mostly novels by local authors whom I have befriended and swapped books with. Most of their stories are in genres I would not ordinarily pick up, but once I have them in hand, I have an obligation to read them. I find myself appreciating their stories. I can find gems even those that are poorly written or developed and need significant editing. And I have sometimes found that these authors whose work needed work have done their homework and improved their craft significantly in subsequent stories, which pleases me enormously.

    The other thing that has helped me to improve my own work is reading the submissions from members of a new critique group begun in my town last year. Again, many of the genres are not those I am inclined toward, but they broaden my mind. And I find invaluable the exercise of finding the gems in each piece and to prepare critical comments that hopefully illustrate to the author how those gems can be polished to make a piece shine.

    The comments I receive from these critique members are also as valuable as those from my beta readers. Two submissions ago, I received no comments on possible improvements to the chapter, for they all agreed that it was very well written. That is great, of course, but I was surprised to find that I felt a wee bit disappointed! They didn’t give me any work to do!

    I like a good challenge, in both my reading and my writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I resonate. The only factor in choosing the right word should be whether or not it’s the *right* word, for the sentence, the moment, and the larger context of the story.

      In the fantasy I reading right now, the author talked about blood that “incarnadined” the water. I’d never heard that before, but I LOVED it.

      • Incarnadined–that’s a marvellous word. I’ve never seen it actually used, except in Macbeth, “No; this my hand will rather
        The multitudinous seas incarnadine,….”

        I’m a serial rereader. Some books I reread are witty and amusing; I pull them out when I come home from work tired and fried. Other books, I reread because they’ve been sitting on the shelves for long enough that I only vaguely remember the story. The rest, I reread because I know there was something in story that I didn’t get the first time through. For instance, I’ve been through Mistress of Mistresses a half dozen times and each time I’m sucked in by the language and lost in the philosophy.

    • Sally – I love your tidbit about Robert Louis Stevenson’s family and the lighthouses of Scotland! As a part-Scottish Mechanical Engineer and former Naval Officer, I appreciate this fascinating historical insight. You’ve given me an interesting topic to look into. Thanks!

  5. Hi Kathy,
    to be honest, I don’t challenge myself as a Reader.
    Where fiction is concerned, I simply read.
    In doing so I sooner or later find out, that I either like or dislike the book.
    Then I switch from “reading” to “studying” the book in order to figure out, what bugged me about it.
    This isn’t a very scientific approach though.
    When I do beta-reading, my mindset is different, but thats another story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Beta-reading is actually also a really helpful way to improve reading skills, especially as a writer. I know several betas who don’t write but who are very keenly aware of story thanks to their efforts in helping writers.

  6. You could not have posted this at any better time, Katie!
    Very recently, I put myself out there to any family member willing to read a bit of my work. I did get some good feedback, from those that actually did read it. BUT… that feedback is in so much better perspective after having read this post. Thank you, thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I always try to align any advice I receive against my own vision and tastes for a story. If someone (however well-meaning) is trying to guide a story in a direction that goes against my own reading preferences, I’m always on guard against that.

  7. My biggest roadblock to learning from well-written stories is that it’s so difficult for me to be analytical at the same time as enjoying the story! Often, several chapters will pass before I remember, “Oh, wait. I’m supposed to be noticing character development, dialog, imagery, metaphor and sentence structure!” Sometimes, I will go back at that point to make some closer observations. But other times, I simply continue reading the whole book before going back.

    When Beta-reading for others, I force myself to be more attentive, and often stop briefly to make a marginal note or comment to address more fully later. This way, I can get back into the flow of the (hopefully entertaining) story, while at the same time having some useful bookmarks of items to analyze more completely after I finish the chapter.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t think you need to be constantly aware of what’s working, blow by blow, as you’re reading or watching a story. It’s enough to think about it afterwards and ask yourself *why* you liked or disliked it. What techniques made it work or made it fail for you?

  8. I have rarely re-read books, i think ive read hobbit and LOTR twice but it was about 15 years in-between those reads. And another child book shadow the sheep dog by Enid Blyton.

    I dont strictly have time to re-read, but i can appreciate its educational importance.

    I tend though to value reading a variety of authors where possible, learning different approaches to writing, especially from different eras is invaluable. I do assess what i like and dont like and try to think through why, whether books and movies, even games like final fantasy 7.

    Then i try to think what i can learn to inform my writing better, what to avoid, and what to develop.

    I have found that themes are identifiable in doing this between different categories even medias and genres.

    I think reading outside the box of our preferred genre can help, but also reading deeply into our preferred genre as there is much variety there as well. As much as possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely most of the books I’ve re-read (especially more than once) are books I read as a child. But I see how clearly how those early rereadings shaped me as a person, a reader, and a writer.

  9. I was really fortunate, growing up, to have a mother who loved to read out loud to us kids. She read The Chronicles of Narnia to us when I was in… probably third grade or there-about. The first book, she explained the symbolism as we went along; how Aslan represented Jesus taking our place and punishment (like Aslan did for Edmund) and breathing life into the stone statues represented the way those who loved God, but died before the resurrection, would still be alive in Heaven. (I don’t know if that’s what C.S. Lewis was thinking, but it works for me.)

    Of course, not all the `Chronicles’ have such clear allegorical significance and by `Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ mom was tired of me stopping her every few moments to ask what this or that bit stood for, so she told me I’d have to think about it for myself and tell her what it meant. It was really frustrating at the time, but it got me into the habit of thinking a bit about what I read.

    On the down side, I also got into the habit of expecting fantasy to be allegorical, and had to discover that sometimes a story is just a story EVEN IF there are dragons and magic in it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, you know what I’m going to say, right? A story is never *just* a story. 😉 Allegories are blatant (often too blatant for my tastes) in their portrayals of a parallel truths, but all stories are saying *something.*

  10. I already re-read. That’s how I determine what books stay in my bookcases. If no passage or scene or character from a book has stayed with me over the years, if I never feel a need to re-read a line of dialogue or see again how a scene unfolded, the book can be given away. I keep some books specifically as “soul balms” I can turn to when I need a break or a mental refreshment.

    I wholeheartedly endorse reading the classics. Not just general classics, but also classics related to the genre you write in. Surely romance writers read the Brontes and Georgette Heyer? Horror writers read Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe? Sci-fi writers should make time for Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’d include Homer for fantasy. If the definition of classic is something that has stood the test of time, and you want your writing to stand the test of time, duh, read the classics and learn 🙂

    Classics are also a way to know what’s been done before, and whether or not you’re really subverting your genre tropes. Evil elves are not a subversion, Tolkien was unusual in giving elves souls and making them capable of doing good from good motivations. He didn’t have them paying a tithe to hell. If new fantasy writers only read Tolkien knock-offs then they won’t know just how ‘dark’ the elves can really get. Basically, Galadriel and Legolas are to elves what sparkling vampires are to Nosferatu.

    Read source materials: folk tales, fairy tales, myths. And also ancient stories, e.g., the Odyssey, or “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” or the Beast Epics of medieval France (e.g., Reynard the Fox). And history classics, if you write military sci-fi Xenophon’s “Anabasis” would make an excellent scenario to set in space or another planet. I would read that story!

    I love picking up vocabulary from old stories, they often have a word that’s perfect and succinct, or sets a tone. ERB gave me ‘sward’ instead of “patches of grass.” Robert E. Howard gave me ‘shagreen’ for raw horse hide. EAP’s ‘sepulchral’ shadows warn that characters are in a spooky or dangerous place.

    The “How to Write X” books helped me with beta reading, because they introduced the practice of pointing out Book A as a good example of “X,” whether “X” is dialogue or scene setting or a type of character, etc. Cuz sometimes with beta reading it’s not enough to “tell” your point, you have to “show” it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have the same rule of thumb for keeping hardcopy books. If I don’t intend to reread it at some point, I don’t keep it. It’s the only reason I’ve been able to keep my library down to a single bookcase. 😉

  11. Don Quixote! When I began to catch up on all the classics I didn’t read while growing up, I started with the one book I had heard most about, the one everybody referred to — Don Quixote. What a ride! What fun! I recommend for anyone who wants to start that “catch up” journey through bookdom, to start with Don Quixote. I laugh every time i think about it.

    Thanks, K.M. for speaking about this. You’re the greatest.

  12. My first reaction was, “How do you *study* a story?” I just read it. I’m not really sure that I can distinguish a well-written piece of work from a badly-written one. I just have things that I like, and things that I don’t. I’m not quite sure what the difference is. Part of the problem, I guess, is that I haven’t really read fiction for – a long, long time. But even then, I don’t remember noticing anything about it. I loved Northanger Abbey. But I couldn’t tell you why.

    I guess I’m in the valley below the bottom of the mountain 🙁

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If you can distinguish between a story you like and a story you don’t, you’re already distinguishing good writing from bad writing. Try to get in the habit of consciously identifying what you like and don’t like and what the author did to create that effect.

      • I first read The Hobbit in seventh grade or so. My immediate reaction was to find out everything I could about Tolkien – and my immediate reaction to that was to try and read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In Middle English. A good book does that to me. I’ll have to think hard about why.

  13. Tom Youngjohn says:
  14. I suddenly feel much less ashamed about a deep, dark secret I’ve been keeping from you. I don’t like Jane Eyre.
    There, I’ve said it.
    Granted, I only read it once back in high school. So, who knows, maybe I need to give it another go. Also, I do still remember being impacted by the ending as well as a line from Jane about poverty not being a sin. Perhaps me enjoying it is besides the point.

    On another note, something I’ve been wondering: what are your thoughts on audio books? Alas, most of my reading is non-fiction. Time-wise, I have a much greater capacity to digest those epic-length novels via the ears while doing other work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think audio books are great even though I don’t use them much myself. I’ve always had an aversion to being read to; plus, I just don’t have the mental downtime to take advantage of them. But I think they’re a great way to multi-task when you’re doing brainless busywork. They’re just as valid a way to absorb literature. In fact, depending on how you learn, comprehension can be much better when listening than when reading.

  15. Ms. Albina says:

    I only re-read books if I like them and if I haven’t read them in a year then I take them to a book store or thrift store like savers. I liked reading as a kid about Christopher Robin and tigger and friends.

  16. Brilliant advice! I have an interesting habit when I read – I find myself reading more as an editor than a reader. My brain turns into something of a microscope. This has turned out to be handy in my own writing because I’ve been able to identify what I like and don’t like. However, I think I do need to keep a slightly more open mind (number four on your list) when reading.

    And . . . the classics. That will take some . . . self-discipline. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’ll definitely find that as your own skill and taste grows, you’ll have less patience with poorly-written fiction. However, I would still encourage avoiding simple judgments like, “I hate this!” and instead try to turn it them into useful questions like, “Why do I hate this?”

    • Reading the classics is not as much fun as having done it.

  17. I used to re-read – when I was a child and had the idea that there are not enough books in the world 😉 Grown-up I realised that there is not enough time to read all the great books. Sigh.
    Until early teenage years, I read mostly books in German (my mother tongue). At one point my aunt gave me a huge historical novel to read in English, and I ploughed through it, missing a lot of words but being hooked still. After finishing it I decided I could read ANY book, no matter how difficult. I have read English and German books side by side – a lot of the German classics during my studies. The last years I have read more English than German, due to my favourite authors. And all of the writing craft books I am reading are in English, as are the writing blogs. – But as I am writing in German, I realised I should go back to reading German books too. So that is my challenge at the moment. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s awesome! I’m slowly learning French to the point that I can make out most French passages. I still need to tackle a whole book though.

  18. Fabulous advice! I love reading across genres. Book clubs have been an invaluable resource for reading everything from inspirational fiction to mysteries to Booker Prize winners to classics. Not to mention nonfiction and poetry. Discussing books with others also helps me understand how to write for an audience. In fact, my book buddies are the ones I ask to read my work because I value their insight.

    I gravitate to classics, and Jane Eyre has been my favorite since I read it at age ten. I recommended and reread it for a book club many years later. I gleaned more from it than my younger mind could have grasped. It wasn’t a love for everyone in the group, but I was glad I could challenge them to try something “new.”

    Because I would readily choose a classic, I am attempting to increase my understanding of science fiction and fantasy. My husband is an Asimov fan, so he encouraged me to read the first of the Foundation books. I am noting an increased market in this genre as well. It’s on my Kindle, and I have started. But, I admit to bouncing back to my other options. I don’t know that I would specifically write for these genres (although he thinks I should do that, too), but I would like to understand them if for no other reason than to be able to discuss them with my favorite person.

    I’m glad you brought up building vocabulary. One of my current projects focuses on that very thing!

    Thanks again for the wonderful insight! Happy reading!

  19. Bryan Fagan says:

    I’m at the stage now where when I read a book, a great one that is, I will pause and try to figure out how they did it. At the moment I am reading a novel by Joseph Wambaugh. He is a popular writer but this is the first book of his I have read. The thing that struck me were his development of characters. They were so deep and rich. The reader knows everything about them. This novel will become a wonderful study guide for me.

    Touching bases on the quality of feedback we receive for our work. I am reminded of a certain individual in a writer’s group I once had who could not understand anything unless it was knee deep in a Star Wars theme. It should come as no surprise he did not understand my comedy/romantic piece that I had submitted.

    As always, excellent advice. Thank you.

  20. I love reading many different genres, but I definitely have a strong bias towards fantasy, and will end up reading only that if I don’t watch myself. So I’ve been trying to make lists of books in other genres, (historical fiction, sci fi, horror, etc.) and read one or two off those lists for every fantasy book I read. (I haven’t quite achieved that, but working on it!)

    I find that you can learn a lot from the ways genres handle things differently. There’s a lot of trends to be found within a genre, often one genre having very similar problems/solutions/character roles. I’ve found I’ve come up with some more interesting scenarios by mixing genre conventions.

    As far rereading goes…I never used to reread. As a kid, I thought it was stupid to go back and reread a story I already knew when I could read more new books. Now I reread a lot. I find it fascinating to reread books I loved the most as a kid and still loving them now and being able to see what makes them great. I started this project with Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series and it blew my mind to discover how the books worked, and why they were so important to me, and how they have everything I love to read in them.
    Now I try to always read with a bit of a writer’s perspective in the background, and learn while I read.

    But I still at times read for pure enjoyment and purposely don’t read to watch what they book is doing for certain things. I think that’s important too. I try never to dissect work of my favorite authors, at the very least on the on a first read through, and for some of them, I leave completely alone for just pure reading enjoyment. (Melissa Marr books are basically comfort food) Because while I do love figuring out how a book works, I find once I see that I can’t unsee it, and in certain cases that can detract from the experience of reading.

    Classics are a bit of a hit or miss with me. I either love them and will reread and annotate endlessly (The Iliad!), or I want to throw them at the wall and never hear from them again (shall not be named). Definitely worth attempting though, and things can be learned from the good and the bad.

    I absolute love learning new words from my readings, and think that the whole readability thing is a bit over rated. Recently learned “elucidate” from reading The Grounding of Metaphysics of Morals, which was awful, but at least I learned a cool new word from it. Books don’t have to be philosophical confusion to incorporate some more interesting words.

    Great post, as always. You never fail to make me think.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, it’s really fun to revisit childhood favorites. It always amazes me how vividly they come back to me.

  21. I read Jane Eyre as a thirteen-year-old, loved it, and thought Mr. Rochester was super-dreamy. I reread it in my early twenties and thought, “Pretty well constructed, but mostly melodramatic rubbish. Not much going on besides an unrealistic wish-fulfillment romance, and a lot of opaque language.” Reread it several years later and realized Charlotte Bronte is a GENIUS.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. Funny how that works, right? Actually, quite a few of my tippy-top favorite stories are ones I literally hated the first time around. I think the best stories are like that: so full of layers they’re almost impossible to appreciate right away.

      There was a great quote I read recently (also in Light the Dark), paraphrasing fashion icon Jacque Cousteau who said, “Fashion is what seems right now but wrong tomorrow.” Instead: “Great art is what seems wrong now but right later.” I think this is because great art is unexpected. It doesn’t fit into our preconceptions, so sometimes, we are initially jarred, perhaps even annoyed. It’s only later, after the new ideas have had a chance to sink in, that we realize how amazing they were.

      By the same token, I think this is why we can often read or watch something fun but brainless and have a good time–but then, upon reflection, realize: “That was terrible!”

  22. Jack Davenport says:

    Great article. Raises an issue I’ve only recently become aware of, about how writers actually write. I was flicking through a few pages of some well known, modern day books (The Beach And American Gods), and it struck me how much these books ‘broke the rules’ by simplifying their language, without necessarily abandoning ‘high level’ vocabulary. It was a good lesson to me to not overthink the wording I use, and just go with the flow. In terms of re-reading, I have undergone a very similar experience to your Jane Eyre example. When I was young I read Of Mice and Men at school and I thought it unsatisfying and, quite frankly, boring. Now, as an adult, reading Steinbeckks Grapes of Wrath, I have re-evaluated my original perception and OMAM is back on the reading list. I’ve started to develop a reading list that takes me out my comfort zone. Just a few weeks ago I finished Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter. Taking advantage of free books on Kindle, I now have a fair stick of classic literature, alongside my more personal interests. The best value about this article is that it details the process of reading. We see a lot of advice out there telling us to read if we want to be effective writers, but the truth is there needs to be an effective process in place for this to be of any use. Many thanks for such an insightful and practical article.

  23. Wayne Tucker says:

    Reading is something that I need to improve on. I never picked it up as a hobby. I used books to get necessary information or information that I can apply. I never really got into fiction. As the article states, I must challenge myself. I want to improve my writing. I must read more.

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  1. […] via 4 Ways for Writers to Become Better Readers — Helping Writers Become Authors […]

  2. […] can learn craft and find inspiration from many places. K.M. Weiland has 4 ways for writers to become better readers, Laura Drake shows what writers can learn from song lyrics, and Danielle Davis tells how to reboot […]

  3. […] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/become-better-readers/ “To some extent, it’s a surface belief we take for granted. But it’s not true. Simply readingfiction is one thing. But reading it well is a learned skill that requires some amount of experience and even dedication from the reader. […]

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