The 10 Commandments of Reading Like a Writer

The 10 Commandments of Reading Like a Writer

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”—Lemony Snicket

If that’s true of people in general, it’s doubly true of writers. As the ever-quotable Stephen King proclaimed,

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

Most of us become writers because we were first passionate readers. But when we begin that evolution into writerdom, our reading habits often change. We might feel guilty for reading instead of writing and start phasing out our reading time. Or we might grow so hyper-aware of writing techniques (and mistakes) that we can no longer read purely for pleasure.

Frankly, neither are good excuses. For every book we write, we need to be reading dozens, maybe even hundreds. We need to be inhaling books, absorbing them. The best, purest, and surest way to learn how to write is by osmosis. This was something I’ve known for years, but it didn’t really sink in until I was given the opportunity to write Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. The book, which pairs my observations on Charlotte Brontë’s craft with the text itself, was a game changer for me. I learned so much in reading this book for the purpose of writing about it.

Want to experience the same powerful approach to reading? Here are the ten commandments of reading like a writer.

1. Judge But Don’t Condemn

Too often, when we approach a book with our writer caps on, we end up focusing on its mistakes. This author’s prologue was boring. That author head hopped out of the narrator’s point of view. And on and on. It’s important to identify what other authors are doing wrong, but there’s a world of difference between judging and condemning. Approach other authors’ mistakes with an open mind and an open heart. You gotta know you’re making your share of mistakes too.

2. Don’t Beat Yourself Up for Not Being Good Enough

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the problem of seeing nothing but an author’s good points—and feeling as if the humble likes of ourselves can never measure up. Don’t forget: you’re here to learn. The very fact that you’re recognizing your own weaknesses is a huge step in the right direction.

3. Read Stories Similar to Those You Want to Write

Every story has something to teach us, no matter its genre. But try to focus on stories of your chosen genre and type. What makes you love these types of stories? How can you sow those elements in your own story? What are these books doing poorly that you could do better? What elements have been overdone from story to story? And if you aren’t enjoying these stories, then you might want to rethink trying to write one.

4. Read Authors Who Are Better Than You Are

While we can certainly learn much from crummy authors about how not write, it’s better to aspire to greatness. Those authors from Commandment #2—the ones who make you feel like a failure? Keep reading them. Stand in awe of them. Absorb them like a sponge. Figure out how they tick. Supposedly we’re each an aggregate of the ten people with whom we spend the most time. Same goes for the authors we read.

5. Read Once for Pleasure, Read Again for Knowledge

You can and will glean treasures from every novel you whip through on a Saturday afternoon. But if you want to take your learning to the next level, you may want to approach your next book like I did Jane Eyre. Before I annotated Jane Eyre, I was already familiar with the story. I’d read the book, I’d seen the adaptations. So when I came back to it for the specific purpose of gleaning writing wisdom, I didn’t have to hang on every word, waiting to find out what would happen. Instead, I got to hang on every word, trying to figure out how Brontë wrought her magic.

6. Study Specific Topics

Often, it’s helpful to approach a book with an eye open for the author’s techniques in a particular topic. Whether you’re studying narrative, dialogue, character arcs, or foreshadowing, you’ll be more attentive to what the author’s doing if you’re already on the lookout for her tricks.

7. Highlight and Make Notes

If you’re able to (i.e., you’re not reading a library book or a treasured edition), you may find it helpful to highlight and make notes within the book itself. When I was studying Jane Eyre, I bought a ratty paperback specifically for that purpose. If you can, find a book with wide margins to hold all your notes. Assign a different color to each topic you’re studying and highlight away!

8. Pay Attention to Structural Landmarks

Structure is the skeleton of every story. It’s what holds the story’s weight and makes it work. So it’s always useful to pay attention to structure, even if it’s not among the topics you’re specifically focusing on. Since the major plot points in any story will fall around the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks, divide the book into fourths. Then dogear the corner at each mark, so you’ll remember to look for the major event happening near that page. This is the best possible way to learn how structure works.

9. Consciously Reiterate Your Findings

In studying Jane Eyre, I obviously had extra incentive for writing up my findings afterwards. But even if no one but you will see your notes, I encourage you to consciously reiterate your discoveries. Forcing yourself to verbalize the techniques that worked (or didn’t) in your chosen book will help you process them and convert them from mere knowledge to powerful instinct.

10. Apply Your New Knowledge

Now it’s time to put everything you’ve learned to use! As important as reading is, it’s still not as important as writing. Put the book down, keep your notes handy, and start writing your own masterpiece. Perhaps future readers will be studying it for their own edification!

The 10 Commandments of Reading Like a Writer

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


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