You’re a writer, so you write. But do you read?
Silly question, I know, because of course you read. A better question is how do you read?
Do you read like a writer?
There are ways writers can read that can be both inspiring and instructive, and that’s what we’re going to cover today, so you can see how reading, as Stephen King says, can serve as your “creative center.”
As we learn to read like a writer, you might be a little afraid I’m going to ruin reading for you—that you’ll no longer be able to read for pleasure, but don’t worry. You’ll still be able to read for fun and distraction.
You can listen, read, or watch to learn more.
Read to Collect Ideas for Your Work
If you want to read like a writer, you’ll benefit from reading with an analytical eye, but before we get into that, the first way to read as a writer is to go ahead and read for inspiration and information, just like you always do.
- You need to understand a topic better, so you research and read about it.
- You want to expand your knowledge, so you read and take notes.
- You want to improve yourself, so you grab a book that’s going to help you gain a skill or solve a problem.
We writers are always collecting ideas and content. All that you read can feed into your writing.
In fact, we’ve done this our entire lives. If not consciously then subconsciously, we’ve been doing all this collecting.
Now I want you to be more intentional about it. Even as you’re casually reading the back of a cereal box, a tweet, or a magazine article, start to take notes about where this content came from, who wrote it, and how it impacted you, because this is material that you can use in all of your work.
Authors Are Your Teachers
Another big way we can read as writers is to start viewing other authors and writers as teachers. They can instruct us. Francine Prose in her book Reading Like a Writer said this:
I’ve heard the way a writer reads described as “reading carnivorously.” What I’ve always assumed that this means is not, as the expression might seem to imply, reading for what can be ingested, stolen or borrowed, but rather for what can be admired, absorbed, and learned. It involves reading for sheer pleasure, but also with an eye and a memory for which author happens to do which thing particularly well.
So we read and pay attention to the choices an author makes that results in such engaging work.
In literature, especially in poetry courses, we talk about a “close reading,” where every idea, every sentence—even every word—is examined. A close reading reveals all: from the highest level of themes, ideas, organization, and structure all the way down to the details of sentences and word choices.
We see what works and why it works.
And while we do want to look to the best to be able to level up our work, we don’t have to always be reading Shakespeare and Dickinson to improve as writers. Our teachers, our model texts, can be from the kinds of writing we want to pursue. We might find a blog post that serves as an excellent example and study the tone and topics that were covered as well as the length and the layout.
And we can learn from that. So find your experts, your teachers, your models, your mentors…wherever they may be.
Read Close by Annotating
Another way we can read like a writer is to annotate. Mortimer Adler in his book How to Read a Book, written with Charles van Doren, wrote this:
Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself and the best way to make yourself a part of it, which comes to the same thing, is by writing in it.
He claims that full ownership of a book happens not when you purchase it. It happens when you interact with it on the page. You annotate, you underline, you write in the margins, and in that way you make it your own.
And the book becomes a part of you.
But let me tell you something: I grew up in a household where we did not write in books. It was absolutely forbidden.
It was a big hurdle for me. I had to overcome the sense of how wrong it was before I could start writing in books. I made my first marks with a pencil because I could write really light with it and erase it if I felt nervous. But eventually I got over that hump and switched to a pen. I began to underline and make notes in ink.
At long last, I finally began to write in those books—not library books, and certainly not my parents’ books, but books that I bought for myself. In fact, I occasionally began to color code with highlighters. But the point is that this is how the books became mine. This is how I truly began to read like a writer.
When we begin to annotate, we’re starting a dialogue with the author across time and space, and it’s a way we can do our own close reading. Adler says, “Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”
And it’s also a great way to mark the places where you’re learning about technique. As you’re figuring out their style choices, mark those spots. Remark on their word selection. It’s another way to interact with the teachers that these authors have become.
Read Close by Copying the Text
If you want to zoom in for the closest reading possible, here’s another idea: copy work.
Yeah, copy work (sometimes written as one word: copywork). It’s not just for kids.
In fact, this is how people learned to write in ages past. Jack London copied out much of Rudyard Kipling’s work to learn how to craft sentences and develop ideas.
Ben Franklin also learned to write by a kind of copy work he invented.
He selected some favorite articles from a magazine of his time, The Spectator, and tried to write in the same style as the authors whose style he admired.
As he wrote, he realized he was lacking in vocabulary and fluency. So he would read a piece closely, take notes by writing out key words, and then try to go back later and replicate it from memory.
It worked. He gained fluency and vocabulary by using the key words to jog his memory and copy out as much of the original text as possible.
He was using the text to tutor him in writing.
He talked about trying to express what he called the “hinted sentiment” of the original article. He would find his errors and correct them. At some point he decided to take it to another level by converting someone’s prose into poetry. After a few days, he’d convert it back into prose again. This variation on copy work is yet another technique that helped him become a better writer.
We can borrow Ben’s method for ourselves and look for that hinted sentiment as we learn from authors. Choose your tutors and discern how they arrived at such an appealing way of expressing themselves.
It’s such a simple method to follow, whether you copy out a text word for word like Jack London or you use Ben Franklin’s method of taking notes, using a few key words and then trying to replicate from memory what you read before.
Choose Your Mentors
Ben could have chosen Shakespeare to learn from, but he didn’t. He chose contemporaries whose work he admired. You can do the same. You can choose your own texts and authors to learn from in the genre you’re pursuing.
Keep in mind this is a learning exercise, not an opportunity to plagiarize. You’re merely trying to pick apart how these experts pieced things together, how they use phrasing, flow, and rhythm. How did it all work?
Francine Prose says:
Every page was once a blank page just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing, depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.
You are simply learning from their choices just as Ben Franklin learned from the people he admired and Jack London learned from Kipling. When Ben recreated the work and tried to figure out how close he got, he was sometimes quite pleased.
He wrote this in his autobiography:
By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them, but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method of the language. And this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer of which I was extremely ambitious.
As you read like a writer and apply some of these ideas, I hope you find, like Ben Franklin, that in particulars of small import, you may have actually improved on the method of the language.
And I hope you, like Ben, are extremely ambitious to become a better writer.
The way to read like a writer is to read like a student, like an apprentice to the authors whose work inspires you.
What author or book do you plan to turn to as your next teacher?
And what methods do you think you’re going to try?
- 5 Writing Strengths You Need to Succeed (at my YouTube Channel)
- Learn from the Best: Copywork for Grownups (Podcast Episode 107)
- Learn from the Best: Imitate but Don’t Plagiarize (Podcast Episode 106)
- Learn from the Best: The Book Is Yours When You Write in the Margins (Podcast Episode 104)
- Grow as a Writer: Surround Yourself with Excellence (Podcast Episode 102)