How To Read Like A Writer

All a writer’s gotta do is read and write.

That, the most simplistic piece of writing advice around. So dismissive of what writers do, isn’t it? As if writing is just practice, practice, practice. Nothing to learn here. No thought behind it. No understanding of the mechanics of language. No need to ever gaze into the bloodshot eye of publishing to learn its secrets. Just read and write, read and write, read and write, and poof

You’re a writer.

IT’S GODDAMN MAGIC IS WHAT IT IS.

Ahem.

That’s not to say the advice is bad.

You do need to write a lot.

And you sure as hell need to read a lot.

But the truth of those statements cannot be contained in those statements.

Meaning, it’s a whole lot more complicated than all that.

You can’t just pick up a book, read it, and have its wisdom absorbed into you. Eating a microwave burrito doesn’t make you a chef. Sitting on a chair doesn’t make you a fucking carpenter. And reading doesn’t make you a writer.

My impetus for this post comes from the Passive Voice blog, which linked to a quote of mine regarding reading outside one’s comfort zone as a writer, and some of the comments in response troubled me a little bit — “…I get zero inspiration from what I read. All of my inspiration comes from the world around me. Reading is what I do to put my brain in neutral and coast for a while.”

Now, I certainly approve of the idea that one should grab inspiration from the world around them — I think the all a writer’s gotta do is read and write chestnut constantly misses that third and arguably most important axis: “…oh, and also, the writer should damn well live a life and experience the world all around him.”

But not gaining inspiration from reading? Jeez, really? How did one decide to be a writer at all if one is not inspired by the written word? That sounds to me like a special kind of hell.

Still: I get it. We’re accustomed to reading for entertainment. We want to be amused by the antics on the page. Excited by a scene of tension or terror or action. Griefstruck by a character’s death. Turned on by a mistress sticking the whip-handle up her submissive’s uh-oh-hole. We’re reading to elicit a certain emotional reaction. We’re not necessarily reading to be challenged.

Well, cram that up your uh-oh-hole.

You need to start reading like a writer.

Here’s how:

Be present in the text. Do not put your brain in neutral and coast. It’s great when a book takes us out of our own lives and draws is into the life on the page. But it’s precisely that moment you want to avoid: you don’t want to be lost in the text. You want to be aware. Because that writer’s ability to make you forget you’re reading a book? That writer’s doing something super-fucking-awesome. Don’t you want to know what it is?

Read to understand; dissect the page. Go back to the chef metaphor: a chef doesn’t just eat to enjoy. A chef watches how another chef operates. A chef wants to look at technique and then wants to see how that technique translates to the food on the plate: what ingredients are present? What textures and spices? What ancient shellfish from beyond space and time? The chef dissects the meal and so must the writer dissect the page and the story before him. You are not reading to be entertained. You are reading to understand.

Read with questions in mind. Always be asking questions. How did she write this? Why, if you can guess, did she write this way or choose the words she chose? Look at the placement of the words on the page. How much dialogue to description? How does she handle character, or setting, or action? Perhaps the biggest question of all: how would you have done differently? Not better. Not worse. But how would you have handled writing this?

Read to critique. The notion of critique has lost all its nuance in the Internet age — now critique is either a plate full of firecrackers and cookies and My Little Ponies or it’s a bowl full of llama diarrhea. Everything is either OMG AWESOME +1 LIKE RETWEET HERE ARE A THOUSAND EXCLAMATION POINTS or THIS WAS THE WORST THING I’VE EVER EXPERIENCED IT MADE ME STAB MY OWN MOTHER IN THE NECK WITH A BROKEN COKE BOTTLE. But remember — critique isn’t about love or hate. Critique is an analysis. Analyze the work.

Read deeply. Our reading is often quite shallow. Don’t let it be. Look beyond the words. Figure out what the author is trying to say. What themes are at work? What ideas are resonant throughout the piece? What secret childhood traumas can you discern? Was the author the victim of many so-called “swirlies” in junior high? I KID THE POOR BULLIED AUTHORS. Just the same — look for the author on the page and in the story. Try to seek subtext hiding behind text. Look for hidden purpose and the show going on behind the curtain.

Understand the interplay between writing and storytelling. Those are two separate skills (or crafts, or arts, or magical leprechaun incantations or whatever you want to call them) — the story comprises all those narrative components and the writing comprises the language that communicates those narrative components. Both have structure. Both utilize the other. Separate but then ask: how and how well do they work together?

Read from the screen. Watch television. Films. Games. Get scripts. Read those. You’ll learn a lot about dialogue and description. You’ll learn the architecture of story.

Read beyond the walls of your pleasure domeIf all you do is read in the genre in which you write and/or enjoy, you’ve created for yourself a narrative echo chamber — your own authorial intentions are boomeranged back to you. You gain nothing. You are a part of a giant genre centipede, consuming material and excreting it, passing along a series of tried (and tired) tropes and ideas, with the only advantage being that they first pass through your intellectual colonic flora. Don’t be afraid to read books that trouble you. Books that have found success beyond your understanding. Books that live outside your favored genres. Fuck comfort.

* * *

Now, all of this is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t read for pleasure. I wouldn’t rob you of that. I might steal your wallet or your shoes or your wife but never the pleasure you gain from reading the written word. Just the same, if this writing thing is what you want to do with some or all of your life, then accept that reading is part of the job. And this job demands that all the lights in your brain are turned on, not dulled to a dim room in order to passively absorb the haw-haws and ooh-aahs of entertainment. Read like a writer, goddamnit.

80 comments

  • Totally agree with reading a book more than once — I essentially put my mind in a sling for the first pass, let the author do whatever they want with me, then flip back through the book and think about character, structure, action, etc before I put it away. If it’s a compelling book, I’ll read it again, just like I’d see a good film or play more than once. And speaking of which, I’d like to recommend reading plays or screenplays once in a while. It’s a good way to get out of your comfort zone, doesn’t take as much time as a novel, and it really shows you how a story can be stripped down to the bone. A scriptwriting course was an eye-opener for me.

  • I read books at least 3 or 4 times each. I have been doing that since I was in 8th grade. I didn’t even do it with the intention of learning to be a writer. I just figured I must have missed something the first time, and then some. There are always details there for the reader to find, even if they are small. Some of my favorite characters didn’t become so until I noticed the super small things that made them wonderful on a second or third read. Also, if it is a book, I will probably read it. While fantasy is my medium when I write, I find it easier to be a fantastical writer when I read about the crazy shit that actually happens in the world. It almost always makes me say “oh dear” and then I come up with a fantasy equivalent.

  • One of the things I started doing, is reading books twice. So far I mainly read in my comfort zone, but started reading a small amount of fantasy. I read once for pleasure, and then a second for studying syntax and themes.

  • January 7, 2016 at 2:32 PM // Reply

    Chuck Wendig, when reading this I was in disagreement up until the last paragraph because I strongly believe that reading is mainly for entertainment to the general public. But when you mentioned that this idea is mainly for people that want writing to make up most of their lives then I realized exactly what you were saying. Writing, like any other profession, requires you to master every aspect of the subject in order for the writer to become great. You present this idea very firmly and I wasn’t fond of the idea at first because I don’t want to be a writer for a living. I personally enjoy it when a book takes me away from the real world and makes me feel like I am part of the story; however, when I look at reading from a writer’s standpoint I see how that just isn’t an option if I want to better my craft. Every example given in this blog post makes the concept very clear although, I would like to know if you ever catch yourself getting lost in a really good book every once in a while.

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