How I Read Like A Writer

1:09 PM


It's goin' down today. 
also, this is actually my picture for once! lookit that.
As you may have noticed, I went to a writing conference last month. i haven't shut up about it so i don't know how you wouldn't know by now. We talked about lots of things at that conference, including how our words have power and the value in writing personally and honestly. I also attended a class there led by Jacqueline West, author of the super-awesome Dreamers Often Lie (go read it) in which she talked all about reading like a writer. So that's what I wanted to talk about today.

Something I've learned in my many many years of writing experience is that I learn the most about writing from simply...reading other writers. I get the most inspiration when I read good books. I learn what I want to write about or don't want to write about by reading other books. I develop my style by stealing elements I like from other authors/books. Reading -- and reading widely -- is the most useful thing you can do as a writer, and I very firmly believe that. 
alllll the books. the amazing ones and the meh ones and the sucky ones.
During her class Jacqueline talked a lot about stealing from other authors and developing your own style by being inspired by other books, and how there are lots of different ways to read with the intention of bettering your own writing. Since that's something I do more than I probably should, I wanted to talk a little bit about how I go about doing that, and how I learn about writing from other books. 

1. I just...read stuff. A lot. And when I say "a lot" I mean seriously, a lot. I could read two books a day if I wanted to. I'm a fast reader. I tear through books like they're food. (Aren't they?) This isn't how everyone does it -- you don't have to be a fast reader to be a real reader by any means -- but getting through a lot of books helps me learn how to weed out what I like, what I don't like, what intrigues me, what makes me put a book down immediately, what hooks me and what makes me want to fall asleep right there or watch my hair grow instead of reading it. I develop a feel for what's worth my time and what's not and what works and what doesn't. (In my opinion, at least.) So I've got a whole world of knowledge in my head there, and it just kind of...bleeds through into my writing a lot of the time? i'm already off to a great start of not making sense.
devour is definitely a good word here.
2. I mark up the books I own. And I can just feel some of you guys cringing, but guess what? I don't care. I buy books and I totally mark in them and write in the margins and underline bits I like and draw arrows between sentences that connect and over-analyze the characters and all that good stuff. I totally destroy the books I own and it's very satisfying. I have no regrets. Reading with a pen in hand -- I almost always just do this to books I've read before -- makes me slow down and take in what I'm reading. I get to think about the way words flow and what I like about how the author uses those words. I get to find thoughts I like. I get to see how character development is worked in subtly. I notice a lot more when I take the time to mark up a book and it's very satisfying. This method doesn't work for everyone, but I'm a messy person and it works great for me. 

Note: DO NOT DO THIS WITH LIBRARY BOOKS. BUY YOUR OWN. One gets the feeling the librarians wouldn't appreciate finding your notes all over their copy of the book.
an example: my copy of Brave New World, which I just recently wrecked. it was beautiful.
3. I talk about them with people. I'm a talkative extrovert person, and when I have thoughts, I often get those thoughts in the middle of a conversation. So my favorite thing is to find a fren who doesn't mind listening to me rant, or better yet, someone who's also read the book, and I flail about it and talk about it. I'll form opinions that way, and learn how to use my words for once to process how I felt about something and why I loved it so much. It's very useful.
flailing over books like
4. I compare books to my own stories. Does my steampunk novel feel as richly developed as Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan? (spoiler alert: it doesn't yet). Does my inciting incident take place in the first two chapters or so, like it does in most books? Often I'll take a look at the pacing of books similar to my own, and compare it to what I've written. It helps me figure out how to make that pacing thing work, and so on. Comparison (of the good kind and not the "I'm not Neal Shusterman and never will be" kind) is very helpful sometimes. It gives me more of a visual. 

5. I read instead of writing. Yeah, yeah, I know. I procrastinate too much and I should be focusing on my book, really. I should be writing more. But at the same time...sometimes the creative burnout comes out of nowhere, and the only cure is to put aside my writing for a few days and read some books. There's no better way to fill up the creative well than that. Filling my brain with words that aren't my own, and even genres I don't write in, gives me a different perspective! And if I'm reading a really good book, that makes me want to go back to writing my own story because now I have all this inspiration and all these ideas. It's a win-win.
sometimes i just hug books too and that makes me just as happy.
6. I steal from books I love. Because all good writers do that, let's be real. (If you want to be inspired in this just read Steal Like An Artist by Austen Kleon because it's the best.) Obviously plagiarism is a thing and you do not want to do that thing, but at this point in art there is nothing new under the sun and it's totally acceptable to form your style by taking bits and pieces from the books and writers you love. So I use Neal Shusterman as a springboard for all those deep themes I want to address and I read Pierce Brown and take bits from his book to see if I can't nail that hard sci-fi aesthetic and I read the amazing book Ship Breaker and study the way the author describes things and see if I can't copy a bit of that style of using words because his descriptions are on-point, as you say. Steal allll the things. Take allll the inspiration.
oh scott. #teamantmanforever
Basically: I'm a filthy thief who uses reading as an excuse to not write, and I have no regrets.

How do you read like a writer? What books influence you?

30 comments

  1. YES THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS!
    You know what I read last week??? one of my favorite authors who I am debating whether I still respect or not, has declared that she NO LONGER READS BECAUSE SHE DOESN'T THINK IT IS VALUABLE TO HER WRITING.
    I was blown away like, flabbergasted, like WHAT???
    Writing and reading are like pb and j, like Hansel and Grettle. I ABSOLUTELY agree with you that you learn so much from reading others works. I do also compare other books to my own books (within my genre)The only problem is remembering to find your own voice. But still, there is so much to learn. I learn what works well in the genre (b/c well I want to sell books in that genre, right??? so I should know what works in that genre) I learn what DOESN'T work. I completely agree with every point you made. I also take bits and pieces from others works and work them into mine, and it's not the 'ideas' that I take, it's the 'emotion' conveyed. For example, I am writing a book about a man with anxiety. Not chronic, but b/c of the death of his fiance. I recently read a story about a woman who had chronic anxiety. I can USE that emotional vibe, because it worked so well. I can examine my writing, and other research I've done, and compare it to the already-published work and determine, is this working in my own story?
    Great post THANK YOU!

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  2. OH NOT ONLY THAT, but I commented on the author's FB post respectfully disagreeing with her, and mentioning that I like to also read books that are geared toward helping you build your craft. She said SHE SAID THIS. "I picked up a book on writing craft and my husband told me to put it back b/c he thought it would hamper my voice or mess up my flow."

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    1. YIKES. I don't agree with that...at all. xD Reading has helped my writing in every way possible, and I don't know what I would do without it. Probably just suck at writing. :P

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  3. Stealing allll the things - without plagiarism, of course - really is a good way to go. I want those deep themes that Neal Shusterman has, although, let's be real, never compare your writing to his because nothing will be as beautiful. The deep gritty stuff you find in Red Rising. Sometimes it's just as simple as loving little aspects of how authors word things. Marking up books, because that's fun. Just. All of that.

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    1. *nods wisely because I'm good at that*

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  4. BLESS THIS POST. I honestly think I am a better writer because I've read so much. Whenever I'm losing inspiration and I don't know what else to put in a chapter, how to start a chapter, I read something, whether it's fanfic or just a quick chapter of the book I'm reading. It really helps me to grasp an idea, or a model to help me shape my writing or figure out what I want to do next.

    Amazing post Aimee, thank you <3

    ~Noor

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  5. I... Read like a very bad writer. Meaning I love reading, but I get so busy writing (along with renovating the entire house we're living in, so you could say that puts a crimp in my reading time) that I don't read much. The last time I finished a book was... Weeks ago. *hides* I used to read so much I barely wrote. Now it's the other way around. I can't seem to find the right balance. :/

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    1. Ah, I feel that. It's hard to find a balance that works, and I'm still trying to figure that out myself.

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  6. I need to read. Not just for writing purposes, but because when I go a while without reading much I feel like there's something missing in my life and I get sort of lost and feel generally unpleasant. And my vocabulary goes downhill. Reading is one of the few things in my life I'm really passionate about. When I don't read, I can't write. I don't mark my books up a lot, but I usually read from an analytical perspective (I blame my lit teacher for that) and I take notes when I can. My style (which doesn't really exist, because I don't write a ton and I'm still trying to figure my style out) is pretty much just a conglomeration of the elements of other people's styles that have inspired me. So yeah. As Noor said above, BLESS THIS POST.

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    1. Yessss reading helps keep your brain moving and makes you feel smart in all ways, which is awesome.

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  7. Spot on with the Ant Man gif. I suppose I most often steal the good ideas from sucky books. (or movies)

    And, I think for me, the key is to steal subtly, steal seldom, and steal the under-the-surface-obscure ideas and make them bigger.

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  8. I don't mark books up if I have to share them. With my family, for instance. But when I live by myself, I'll mark them up as much as I please.

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    1. Hahaha, yeah! I have too much fun with it.

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  9. Steal Like an Artist is one of my favorite creative/inspiration type books. Show Your Work! is great too. I like that you mention that reading terrible books is pretty important, too--you need to know what you don't want you stories to be like.

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    1. I need to read more Kleon books because he's so cool and inspiring and makes me want to make alllll the artsy things.

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  10. Thank you for this post! You totally just reminded/inspired me to go and devour all the books.
    I'm really bad at reading like a writer. Sure, I'll see something or read something that I see works or doesn't work, but then I forget.
    Perhaps like you said, it will just bleed into my writing some how?

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    1. Devour allllllll the books. Even if you're just reading it, without taking notes or whatever, it'll seep into your brain, I guess.

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  11. I still don't understand how you steal from another author without plagiarising? Helllp.

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    1. I think it's more a matter of stealing themes and general inspiration, rather than ideas. For example, I LOVE Pierce Brown's complex sci-fi plots. I can't steal his plot ideas directly, but I can take the general ideas -- writing about unique characters, a society based off mythology, themes of redemption and revenge, etc. Think about what makes you love the books you love, pick out the elements you love about them, and see if you can't work those into your own work in a different unique way.

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  12. I feel like I just need to add this post to my list of writing resources. Reading like a writer has been a recent discovery for me. I think I find a lot of things that I realize I MUST NOT DO when I'm reading crappy books, and things I MUST DO by reading amazing books. It's still kind of rough analysis right now, but your post really inspires me to analyze books to shreds and to read more widely. Am definitely getting that Steal Like an Artist book.

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    1. Yeah, it's been something I've been working on and it's so fun. :D

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  13. Yes, yes, and yes! I think I haven't felt in the mood for writing lately because I really haven't been reading, and I need to remedy that *heads off to go read To All the Boys I've Loved Before* Great post, Aimee!

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  14. I started marking up books, it's cool to come back to and look over.

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  15. I may just start marking up my books too, because even though it kind of makes me shudder to do that, I think it will improve my writing and my thinking about writing.
    You inspire me.
    Keep blogging!

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  16. I love this. ^_^ I mark up books too, but apparently not as much as you do! xD

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  17. Basically let me just say that I judge writers by what books they read. Yup.

    And yeah I love this post (I think I say that about every one of your posts??) because it's something I've been really thinking about lately. (Also possibly because basically my online school has an e-zine and I signed up to do a column on learning to write from reading. So I better be thinking about it.) Basically I need to work on being a more careful reader? I think I do pretty well, but your methods put mine to shame. I have homework to do, apparently.

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hey. hey. talk to me. i'm a fan of comments and flailing with you. go for it.