If you’ve made it your mission to write, it’s probably because you love reading. Your life has been touched and changed by books you’ve read and stories you’ve heard since you were a tot, and now you want to create that experience for others.
The irony is that once you start writing, it’s often difficult to find time for reading, and that’s just wrong on so many levels.
We must consume story. It’s the fuel that keeps us going, nourishes our imagination, and builds our skill set. Most of us have heard Stephen King’s take on this before, but it never grows old or any less true:
Okay, but how do I read like a writer?
I want to clarify that I’m addressing fiction writers in this article—those who are focused on storytelling and entertaining readers. And I may shock you with some unconventional views on this.
These are my opinions, formed through experience and fostered, at least in part, by the mentors I’ve adopted throughout my writing journey.
4 Reading Rules for Writers
So how do you read like a writer? You don’t. Well, maybe a little, but we’ll get to that later.
First, and by far the foremost, you read like a reader. For enjoyment. For entertainment. Always, the first time you read a story should be for the sheer joy of it.
Here are a few reading rules I try to live by.
1. Read for pleasure
The first time you read a book, try not to analyze or pay conscious attention to the mechanics. Focus, instead, on your experience of the story and how much you’re enjoying it, how much it grabs you and moves you along or how much it invites you to savor certain passages. Make sure you are inside the story, experiencing—not outside the story, criticizing.
If you’re loving the book—or at least liking it to a satisfactory degree—read to the end. If you’re not enjoying the book—STOP! Move on to something that works for you. There are several reasons for this, including the probability that you won’t get what you need from this book and there are better ways to use your time.
2. Evaluate your reading experience
If you reach the end of the book and you found it fun, memorable, impressive, entertaining, or whatever it is you look for in a book, it’s worth a little more of your time. If this is a book you would recommend to a friend, ask yourself why. Look more closely at the story—as a reader—and think about the positive aspects.
What did you like about it? What worked for you?
3. Make a choice
You have two options here, the first which I highly recommend, and the second which I would ask you to approach with caution.
Option A: Seek out more books by the same author, read all you can find. Trust that your subconscious brain is learning and you are gaining those tools super storyteller Stephen King spoke of.
Option B: Study the book with your critical eye, noting techniques and details. Look behind the curtain.
This is a little like cutting open a butterfly to see what’s inside. You might learn a few things, but you kill the magic in the process. Stitching together the dissected parts to make your own creation puts you in league with Doctor Frankenstein and may produce an ugly bloodless brute that will have readers grabbing their pitchforks.
Please understand—I’m not saying you should never choose Option B. There might be times when you deem it worth sacrificing a book you love to pull it apart and get a better idea how it works. Just realize there are more natural, effective ways for you to gain those skills.
4. Reread your favorites
Your favorites are your favorites for a reason. Let some time go by and read them again.
All the wonderful things the writer did to make such an enjoyable book will sink in on a subconscious level, and that’s where our best writing comes from—when we get out of our own way, quell the critical front brain, and let the creative back brain take over, trusting the process.
A little woo-woo . . . maybe
Four out of five English teachers would not approve my methods for how to read like a writer. But then, four out of five English teachers are not professional writers. The professional—and successful—writers I know read a lot, and they read in the manner I’ve described.
Some of you know that I’m a piano teacher. Part of every lesson I have with a student involves a “mystery song.” This is a song I’ve chosen to meet that student’s particular needs and I teach it by rote. Assuming English is the student’s native tongue, here’s an example of what the dialogue might sound like when I introduce this concept.
Me: You speak English very well. How did you learn to do that?
Me: Did your parents sit you in their laps with a grammar textbook on their knee? Did you go through the chapters together?
Student: No! They just talked to me.
Me: They just talked to you and it worked?
Student: Yes. They talked and I listened and pretty soon I was talking too.
Me: Well, I’m going to just play to you and you’re going to watch and listen and pretty soon you’ll be playing the song for me.
Conscious in conjunction with the subconscious
Our brains are wired to absorb and learn language through observation and imitation, and it’s most effective when it’s subconscious and effortless. Speech is a language. Music is a language. Writing is a language.
We’ve been absorbing and learning story since babyhood—before we could talk. We instinctively know what goes into a good story. Our conscious, critical storytelling skill level is about ten years behind our instinctive skill level. To operate at that conscious level, we have to lower the bar quite a bit.
I’m not saying there’s no place for conscious study of craft. There absolutely is, and I love and value learning about all the aspects of effective writing. I’m just saying: give your subconscious brain its due credit and let it help your conscious brain tell a great story.
And that means reading—a lot—and for enjoyment!
How about you? Do you make time to read for pleasure? Do you love rereading a favorite? Tell us about it in the comments.
Consider a favorite book. You love that book because of the experience you have when you read it. Open it up and reread a scene or chapter. Pay attention to how you feel, the kinds of emotions it creates for you. Then set your timer for fifteen minutes and start writing.
Write anything. Let your subconscious brain take the lead. You don’t have to strive to express a certain idea or give yourself a subject. You don’t have to create a beginning, middle, or end, or use correct sentences or proper format. The only thing you must do is keep writing. And relax. Let the words flow out without conscious thought.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, read what you’ve written. Are there any golden nuggets in there? This is a great way to warm up before you dive into the meat of your writing day, to get ideas, to vent your feelings, to exercise your creative muscles.
If you find something in your practice that you want to share, post it in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!