How reading helps writing

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Sure, you may read for fun. But if you learn how reading helps writing, you’ll start approaching the task a little differently….

An essay by Joan Didion described her husband — the late John Gregory Dunne — reading a novel. I could be wrong, but I seem to recall the book was Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. 

Dunne, as Didion described, read the book half a dozen times, pacing beside their pool deck while he analyzed and evaluated how the author had constructed his best-seller. 

But the key part of that sentence lies in the phrase half a dozen times. Reading to improve our writing — as opposed to reading for fun and entertainment — is an unusual act. It’s hard work and it requires attention and diligence.

Learning to write is not like going to school. It’s more of an apprenticeship and a practice. With writing, we learn by doing.  By making mistakes and doing better the next time. By copying the work of people who have more experience than we do or who are better than us.

I’ve long felt that the art students who hang out at international galleries, like the Uffizi and the Louvre, copying the works of the masters, present a valuable model for writers, and one more of us should emulate. This is why I encourage every writer to become a copycat — to learn what we can from those who have gone before us by copying their writing word for word.

But once you’ve identified those masters and perhaps even after you’ve started to copy them, how do you take the next step and allow their writing to truly influence your own? You do that by active reading. 

Active reading is not about relaxing and allowing the story to pull you along. It’s about thinking and analyzing and evaluating. 

By definition, active reading requires both re-reading and note-taking. This is how reading helps writing.

The first time you read a book, for example — especially if it’s a novel you like — you will be engaged by the story or plot. What’s going to happen next? you ask yourself. You read along to answer that question. 

When you read actively, however, you should not be concerned about plot — unless of course, you’re trying to improve your own plotting skills. But then you should ask meta questions — like, how has this author made the plot so engaging? — rather than minor questions, like, what’s going to happen next? (Are you able to “let go” of concerns about the plot? Tell us how you do that here.)  

Further, as you seek to answer these questions, you need to be sure to take notes and not just try to remember your findings in your mind’s eye. Note-taking will force you to be more concrete and analytical. Plus, it will create a valuable record of what you’ve discovered. 

Make your notes brief and succinct, though, focusing on the techniques of the author rather than anything else. Fiction writers, for example, shouldn’t note, “Marie questioned her daughter’s choice of boyfriend,” Instead, they might say, “the author demonstrates family dysfunction by showing the mother’s involvement in her adult daughter’s romantic life.”

Of course, each writer will be seeking different clues from each book they read. But here are some examples of the types of questions fiction writers might want to consider:

  • What are you finding especially engaging about this book? (is it the plot, the characters, the writing style?) Why?
  • How does the author handle dialogue?
  • What can you learn from how the author tags dialogue (ie: uses phrases like, ‘s/he said’)
  • How does the author give each character a distinct voice? (Do they do it through vocabulary? Syntax? Subject matter? How?)
  • How does the author use chapters? (How many of them are there? How does each chapter end? How many scenes does each chapter contain?)
  • What’s the relationship between characters in the novel? How do they interact with each other?
  • How much description does the author use and how much do they leave to their readers’ imaginations?

And here are some examples of the types of questions non-fiction writers (including academics) might want to consider:

  • What are you finding especially engaging about this book/paper? (Is it the findings, the sophisticated analysis, the writing style?) Why?
  • How much story-telling has the author used, even in a non-fiction piece of writing?
  • How much evidence/research has the author marshalled?
  • How much concrete vs abstract language has the author used?
  • Has the author made exceptional use of tables and/or graphics?
  • How skillfully has the author cited the work of other writers?
  • How has the author’s writing style contributed to (or detracted from) the impact of the argument the book/paper is making?

Of course, there will be dozens of other questions you’ll want to consider, depending on your own writing goals and your own specific writing challenges. William Faulkner describes the job  this way: “Read, read, read. Read everything  –  trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

My only additional proviso is to be wary of the bad stuff or the trash. If you read too much of it, you’ll inevitably start to write in a similar way because we all absorb the styles of what we read (garbage in/garbage out is how the expression goes.) In fact, I’m convinced this is why so much academic writing is so bad (and so under-read.) Academics who read nothing more than poorly written papers in peer-reviewed journals start to see that kind of writing as normal, even desirable. 

Protect yourself from this wrong-headed conclusion by reading widely. This is how reading helps writing: If you’re a chemist, read some fiction. If you’re a psychologist, read a thriller. If you’re a novelist, read a book about neuroscience. 

Reading — especially actively — helps us all grow and learn and become better writers ourselves. And if you think you don’t have enough time to read, I can give you some practical advice about that here.  


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week addressed the issue of how to finish what you’ve started. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


What’s your experience relating to how reading helps writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy! 

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