Relearning How to Read

Any writer will tell you that reading is integral to improving your writing. But if you want to better your craft, not only must you read a lot, but you must adjust the way you read. You must read as a Writer.If you’ve taken creative writing classes, or researched this on the web, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with how to read as a writer. For those who are, feel free to add your input in the comments. And for those who aren’t, I hope you’re in a sealed room, because your brain is about to explode.

First, let’s briefly take a look at reading as a Reader. The majority of people who buy books are plain and simple readers. They are doing it for enjoyment, to be taken into a different world, to weep and laugh along with the characters. Readers love books that make them feel connected to the characters and entertained. They’re often not too concerned with the elegance of the prose. Readers read much more simply than Writers because they’re not picking apart the sentences. They’re content solely with the act of reading.

Writers can, of course, read as Readers. In fact, this is something they should be able to slip into easily. It’s sort of like turning your mind off and just cruising along with the words. Nowadays, most of my reading is done as a Reader. However, when I’m reading something that I believe to be well done, I switch modes and begin reading as a Writer.

This all started when I decided that I wanted to be a novelist. I had no experience when I made this decision, save for some poetry and personal essay classes. In my final year of college I just started writing and when it came time to start a new chapter I suddenly realized I didn’t really know how. Should I say what day it is or how much time had passed from scene to scene? What if it’s a flashback? I had to see what other authors had done, so I began examining novels, observing their structure and plot. As I read, I asked questions like, How does one develop characters? create good pacing? reveal a twist with subtlety?

My first novel was a train wreck of trial and error. It’s a sort of hodge-podge of different styles and techniques, and completely unpublishable. But my ability to read as a Writer had the largest impact in the evolution and improvement of my writing.

Reading as a Writer was hard to slip out of for a while. I thought that the only way to read was like a Writer, and, because of that, my writing suffered. Whenever I read anything, I did it so actively that my style would take on the tone of the author I was reading. My second novel was written almost entirely in the voice of Chuck Palahniuk, and because of my inability to distinguish myself, it was actually worse than my first attempt.

Earlier, I spoke mostly of reading as a Reader as being reading for leisure, but reading in both styles is beneficial. Readers are a writer’s audience. They’re the ones buying the books, making or breaking your career. If you can’t read like one of them, how are you to know what they will like? And further, if you can’t read your own work as a Reader, how will be able to make it appealing to readers?

When I read my own writing, I do so after not looking at it for a few weeks. Sometimes I even wait a few months. This allows me to get fresh eyes and look at my work more objectively. I try my best to read my work as a Reader so that I can get on overall feel for my writing. I turn off my inner critic and read it as if it’s just another novel I’ve plucked from the shelf. If I can read my work and not pick up on what I feel needs to be revised, then I can at least say it’s nearing its final revision. (And hopefully other people will enjoy it, too.)

Many famous writers will tell you that reading will improve your writing. And it’s true. Reading is extremely helpful at honing your craft. But you have to relearn how to do it, which takes a fair amount of time. For me, it’s been a few years since I began my venture into fiction, and now I can say that I finally know how to read.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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10 thoughts on “Relearning How to Read

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  1. Hi! Great post. I’ve been wanting to do a similar post on this same issue. I’ve been part of writing groups and have exchanged with some writers. After experiencing some trouble with one particular writer and her work I asked her “what books have you read that are similar in nature to your work” she said “I hate reading, I haven’t read in years”!! That really shook me.
    Glad I ran into your post!!

  2. Love this! As a Composition teacher this semester, I’ve been working with students on using mentor texts as they write (via Kelly Gallagher). I’ve noticed significant improvement in student writing when they have a guide to use to help them learn how to do all of the “tough things” in writing (transitions, organization, as well as creating suspense etc.).

  3. This is something I’ve never thought of. But now that you’ve made me conscious of how I read I have this to say: like you, I do both. I start to read like a reader. When I realize that I really enjoy reading a particular body of work (whether it’s a book, a blog, an article or even an ad) I start to look at it differently. I look at it more clinically, trying to understand what I like and whether or not it is something I could do to improve my own writing — not for a specific project, just generally. But I endeavour to do it in a way that is consistent with ‘my voice’. Don’t want to change that. Then I always go back and continue to read as a reader.

    1. We’re much the same. Just last night I was reading (as a reader) and when I came to a sudden line, I stopped and examined it and made a mental note of what was done to create a certain tone. I studied the next paragraph, then went back into normal reading mode. It’s a really great thing to be able to move in and out of!

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