How to Read Like a Writer

One of the best workshops a writer can take is found between the covers of books, and if you have a library card and return your books on time, it doesn’t need to cost a penny. Of course I’m talking about reading, often, widely, and deeply. Reading the work of others fires your imagination, and exposes you to myriad voices and ways of expressing thoughts and opinions.

Before I give you tips on how to turn your reading time into your own personal writer’s workshop, please heed this caution: Reading the polished prose of successful writers can put your Inner Critic on steroids. “I can never write that well,” it screams into your brain, hiding behind the first person pronoun as a disguise. “Why bother? My life is so dull, and my writing plain as dirt. I don’t know grammar and forget to run spellcheck. Nobody cares anyway. Why should I bother?”

Here’s what you shout back to that Inner Critic, out loud if nobody’s listening or you’re holding a cellphone to your ear: “I’m a student. I’m learning. I write better today than I did last (year, month), and next year I’ll be even better. If you look at the details, my life is amazing, and I’ll use this book to find a way to show that to other people.”

You don’t have to stick to reading memoir. Well-written novels, mysteries, travelogues, and other topical non-fiction books are also useful. Here are tips to make them do double duty for you:

  • Take notes. Since I generally read library books, I don’t make notes on the page, but I do stick in Post-It flags when I find an especially delectable description or a section that lights my fire. Right now I’m reading Christina Baldwin’s amazing book Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story. This book is like rich chocolate to me, so I’m taking my time with it. I’m only about a quarter of the way through, and it already looks like a porcupine, with pink quills sticking out the edges. Later I’ll sit at my computer as I go back through and transcribe notes from those sections. That works better for me than taking notes longhand on paper, but you’ll find your own system.
  • Ask the same question about the book as a whole. What did you like? What didn’t work as well? What questions are you left with? Why would you or would you not recommend this book to a friend?
  • Analyze. When you find those glowing sections, ask yourself what grabs your attention? What makes this section work especially well for you? Jot down the answers and create your own text or checklist to use when you are writing.
  • Review it. Write a review of the book. This may be a long and detailed or a few sentences. Post your review on Amazon if you feel brave and have an account. The process of writing the review helps you hone your writing skills and practice putting random thoughts in logical order.
  • Discuss it. Join a book discussion group, at your library or bookstore, or start your own. You can also find online book discussion groups. You can learn even more from hearing how other people experienced the book.
For a powerful set of examples of how to wring the last bit of juice from the books you read, visit Jerry Waxler’s blog, Memory Writer’s Network and browse through his 150+ insightful analyses and reviews.

Books are indeed a powerful workshop, but I also encourage you to sign up for occasional classes, workshops and writing groups. Books can inspire your ideas and help you craft your content, but they will never supplant the value of feedback from compassionate and insightful readers. You’ll also benefit from reading books about writing, participating in teleseminars and listening to podcasts about writing. For further guidance and inspiration, get involved with the Life Writer's Forum (see box in left column to join) or the National Association of Memoir Writers.

Write now: write a short review of the last book you read. If it’s been awhile, visit the library and check out a few. Bring home several. You don’t have to read them all, but it’s helpful to browse through them and you’ll help the library by keeping circulation stats high.


Karen Walker said...

Hi Sharon,
I always learn something from reading what you write. How have you been? I've off to Portland, OR today for a writing retreat. Hope you are well and content.
Karen Walker

Ritergal said...

Thanks Karen, you are already on step two or three of this writing program, going to a retreat. Hope it yields huge dividends. Portland is in God's Own Country, and your book's readers will know that you are already aware of that.

Jerry Waxler said...

Hmmm. That screaming back and forth would make it hard for me to concentrate. I like it better when I can hear the author call "Follow meeeeeeeee" :)

Memory Writers Network

Pat's Place said...

I do find that I am much more critical of other writing now that I write some myself. I often take a novel (or other book) and think of how I would rewrite it to make it flow better or read better.