5 Ways to Read like a Writer
I used to feel slightly ashamed of the amount of time that I invest in reading and coming up with methods to remember what I read. But then I started taking my writing seriously, and I realized that the habits I had developed as a reader had taught me how to write. I share a few of my practices here in the hopes that this might inspire you to either develop your own practices or stop feeling like you are wasting your time if you take reading seriously.
(TLDR version: take your reading seriously and look for ways to keep track of what you read.)
1. Read everything
I used to work for a literary agent. One day, early on, my boss sat me down and said, “Sarah, I don’t think you know what we’re looking for here.” She specialized in self-help, cookbooks, and romance. I had dropped out of a PhD program in Russian literature to work in publishing. My boss told me we were not looking for Anna Karenina and sent me home with a stack of paperbacks to read over the weekend. I read the romance novels she gave me with my highlighter in hand, like a good student. And she was right. I couldn’t possibly have identified the type of propulsive plot and satisfying ending that readers of romance novels expect without spending some time with those stories.
Everything you read becomes part of your writerly DNA, even the things you read before you decided to make writing a central part of your life. For me, that means not just the personal essays that I study now for their technical precision and emotional depth, but also the stuff I read when I was young — Christopher Pike, Agatha Christie, Clive Barker, and the Sweet Valley High series — the romance, memoir, and self-help authors we repped at the literary agency, and the books I read with my kids.
There are no guilty pleasures. Be like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who once said, “For me, books are divided into books that interest me and books that don’t. I own all my pleasures.” It’s important to read both in and outside of your writing genre. The good writers in any genre may have something to teach you. You can learn pacing and tension from mysteries and thrillers and world building from sci fi and fantasy. After leaving the literary agency, I didn’t read a romance novel for many years, but I recently read a novel by Emily Henry because I heard she was great with dialogue, and it was true. (In writing this essay, I’ve realized that I am sorely lacking in the sci fi and fantasy department, something I hope to rectify!)
In case you are wondering, audiobooks totally count. Lots of writers swear by reading their drafts aloud for the rhythm. Personally, I like to use the Microsoft Read Aloud feature, because if my essay about having an abortion sounds good in a robotic male voice, then I know I’m doing something right. I am picky about which books I decide to read visually versus listen to. Sometimes I listen to Middlemarch while walking the dog in the morning. It feels nice to start the day with George Eliot’s complex syntax before I open up my work email.
Don’t forget nonfiction genres. Read modern short stories and personal essays for structural innovation. Read poetry for compression and pure language. Read the news. Longform journalists and critics are often fabulous writers. Do you need to replenish your adjectives? Food and wine writers offer some of the most sensory-rich descriptive language out there. Looking for language to describe emotional extremes? Try music critics.
These are just suggestions. The point is, read what interests you, notice why you like it, and you will improve your writing.
2. Take notes while you read
Somewhere on my crowded bookshelves there is a paperback copy of Emma that I have owned since middle school. Back then, I was very proud of myself for reading Jane Austen and had never encountered prose like hers, so I savored every witty phrase, as evidenced by the blinding yellow marker in which I highlighted every other sentence. I left almost no words in the first part of the book unhighlighted, until at some point I lost interest and stopped reading.
There are a couple of lessons here. First, I went too far with my studious attention. Maybe if I’d stopped hunting for the next highlight-worthy witticism, and allowed myself to get lost in the story, I would have finished the book. Second, every practice that you care about can be improved, even the seemingly intuitive acts like highlighting what you like in a novel.
Used books are a great source of information for how other people highlight and take notes while they read. I acquired my favorite notetaking technique from the list of handwritten phrases next to page numbers in a used copy of West with the Night by Beryl Markham, given to me by a family friend in 1994. The list looks like this:
- 25 it seems impossible not to be trite on such occasions
- 48 there are all kinds of silences
- 131 if you must leave a place you have lived in & loved . . .
I still use that same system. I use the blank space on a book’s title page to keep a list of the words, phrases, or paragraphs that stand out to me, and I write brackets or a star in the margins of the pages next to the lines themselves. That way they are easier to come back to later.
I love opening a used book and finding that a previous reader emphasized or underlined the same parts that I love. It’s like a social media thread in slow motion. But the nice part is, even if you disagree with the other reader, it’s never going to get too weird.
Because I am fascinated by language, I sometimes keep vocabulary lists in the books that teach me a lot of new words. This is not every book. But if you are, like me, a native speaker of standard American English, and you read a novel like Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart or A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, you are going to find a lot of interesting words and idioms (in Glaswegian slang and Jamaican patois, respectively). Cherish this experience! Reading books with a lot of words you don’t know can be challenging, because it’s like you are learning to read all over again. But I find that valuable. For me, making a record of a challenging novel’s unique vocabulary is a great way to keep myself engaged.
By the way, I’m not a fan of books that use unfamiliar words for no good reason other than making the author look smart, but I am a fan of authors that don’t shy away from using the language that best fits their story, even when that language might alienate some readers. The book that recently taught me the most new words was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
3. Create a spreadsheet
This is the one non-analog activity that I will recommend here. Several years ago, I started to keep a spreadsheet to keep track of the books I’d read. My inspiration for this endeavor was Pamela Paul, former editor of the New York Times Book Review and the author of My Life with Bob, a memoir about her relationship with the Book of Books, aka BOB, aka the notebook in which she lists every book she’s ever read. I could have started a notebook, but in this case I prefer the spreadsheet because I can have columns for the author name, title, publication date, reading date, and notes, and it is easy to organize by any of those categories. For example, when I wanted to write an essay about all the books I’d read in 2021, I just re-organized my spreadsheet by date and got to work.
At first, I called my spreadsheet “BOB” in honor of Pamela Paul. But then I added sheets for essays, poems, and stories, because I was reading and hearing so many great things that were not books, and I needed a place to keep track of them, too. So now my spreadsheet is called the Book of Reading, which I will not shorten here because of the unfortunate homonym. Here is a template, in case you want to start your own.
4. Start a commonplace book
A commonplace book is a place where you copy quotes that appeal to you. In my commonplace book, I have mostly written down quotes from written material, but other people (like New York Times literary critic, Dwight Garner) also include quotes from movies, podcasts, or overheard conversations. There are no rules! It’s your place to keep stuff that you like.
I am a big believer in copying quotes and passages from books by hand. To me, the slowness of writing by hand puts me in dialogue with the other writer’s words in a way that I wouldn’t experience if I just cut and pasted them into a Google doc. But if you want to go the digital route, you can find tips on the Internet for creating digital commonplace books, too. It doesn’t have to be arty. The point is to write down quotes that appeal to you, for whatever reason. I did this in my journals for years, but in 2020 I decided to dedicate a notebook to this purpose. (My husband gave me a journal that looks like an old-fashioned analog mixtape, and it just seemed too perfect.) I love having all the quotes in one place. I find quotes from random stuff on the Internet as well as in books. My attention to what I am reading is heightened when part of my brain is thinking, what might I want to save?
I also copy poems by hand — this is often how I warm up my brain before a writing session. But I do that in a different notebook, and after I copy them I mark them up to try to figure out how they work. The passages in my commonplace book are typically no more than a paragraph long, and I copy them faithfully, without annotations. Here are some recent examples:
“I am condemned to show everything. That is my task.” — Nikki de Saint Phalle
“Creative dissent comes out of love and faith, offering possible alternatives, a vision.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel
“Because, in the end, it takes a heck of a lot more than queso, Dr. Pepper, and hairspray to make a real Texas woman. The single truly essential ingredient that every real Texas woman must possess is this: she must know that she is exactly as special as the state she comes from.” — Sarah Bird
See? So much fun!
5. Keep sentence and word banks
I got this idea from Tom Jenks, founder and coeditor of Narrative Magazine. My sentence bank is a slim red notebook that used to belong to my daughter. (I am a hoarder and repurposer of all notebooks, including the multi-colored, partially filled wide-ruled ones that my kids’ schools used to make us buy every year.) In the front of my daughter’s old notebook are a few pages of drawings that she made when she was little, followed by a page in which she wrote only two sentences on consecutive lines: “What do I do?” and, one line below, “How do I do it?” I thought these pages were a perfect way to start my sentence bank.
My sentence bank is a little like a bullet journal in that I created a table of contents in the beginning and allotted around 20 pages to each category. These are the categories:
· P. O.V. (Point of View)
When I read, I am always looking for perfect sentences, and when I find one I copy it down in my sentence bank in the category that best describes the purpose of the sentence. It can be hard to decide how to categorize a truly great sentence, but that’s part of the fun. It’s like pizza. When we lived in New York, my husband and I used to argue about what made the best slice. Was it the sauce? The cheese? The crust? Eventually we realized that when the pizza was truly great it was impossible to decide. And that was the whole point.
Here is an example of a thematic sentence from my sentence bank:
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
And here is an example of a plot sentence:
“Josette and I were married by a judge in Chicago on Wednesday, August 15, 2012, and then we got lunch.” — Adam Levin, “A Lot of Things Have Happened”
Good writers are word collectors. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes:
“Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings. A writer is all at once everything — an architect, French cook, farmer — and at the same time, a writer is none of these things.”
Priscilla Long describes a system for learning and collecting words in her book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life. There are two parts to this practice, which she calls The Lexicon Practice.
First, make your own collection of words that you like. Long recommends allotting half a notebook page for each. This goes beyond reading — you might hear words or phrases that stick with you, remember a favorite phrase of someone you used to know, etc. Just write the word, its definition, and any notes that you want to take. The words don’t have to be fancy — in fact, it might be better if they aren’t fancy or exotic words that only a few people would recognize. What’s important is that they matter to you. Writing them down will help you figure out why they matter.
On some pages of your word bank, you can collect lists of words. Maybe they look alike, sound alike, or pertain to a similar topic. I have an attraction to four-letter nouns: cusp, knee, gale, flag, wave, jerk, heel, calf, bomb. I’ve also started a page for foreign words that communicate concepts we don’t have a word for in English, like fuubutsushi, a Japanese term that, I am told, means the feeling of longing for a new season at the first signs of its emergence.
The word bank can also be a place to collect terms and phrases that pertain to a specific topic or industry you are writing about. Most jobs and industries have own language, and your writing will be more credible once you’ve learned to speak it fluently. In her essay, “The Poet and the Critic,” Marina Tsvetaeva writes:
“When I recite a poem about the sea, and a sailor who knows nothing about poetry corrects me, I am grateful. Same with a forester, a blacksmith, a stonemason. Any offering from the outside world is a blessing, for in that world I am nothing. And I need it hourly. Imponderables may not be spoken of imponderably. My aim is to affirm, to give a thing weight. [ . . .] For a poet the most fearful, inveterate (and honored!) enemy is the visible. An enemy he defeats only by means of knowledge. Enslaving the visible for service to the invisible — this is the life of the poet.”
The second part of the Lexicon Practice involves creating word banks for specific writing projects. Long calls these “word traps.” Whether you are working on a poem, an essay, a short story or an entire novel, the idea is to create a space for the words that belong in that piece to be together. Not all the words, just the most concrete ones — words and phrases that spark a sense memory like “gold watch” and “church shoes” and “horse manure.” Once you see all of these words on the page together, your mind might start forming playful ideas around how they could be organized. For example, what if “horse manure” became “chicken shit” and plopped down next to “church shoes”? Just a thought.
Medium reader, this has been fun. I love imagining you out there, starting your own spreadsheet and commonplace book. Whether you are a writer, a passionate reader, or both, let’s resolve to talk about our reading habits more often. Just because we live in a capitalist society doesn’t mean we need to feel bad about the time we spend reading. In the words of Annie Dillard (via my commonplace book):
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
I choose to spend my life reading and telling stories. Please join me.