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. 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.

  2. 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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