Here’s an ancient strategy that will improve your writing:
- Find a writing master
- Read their work…
- …and copy all the best parts.
But mimicry will not make you a master. Reading to improve your writing is an art form.
That’s what this post is for.
I’m going to show you the techniques that professional writers use when they read anything. After this, you’ll know exactly how to get better at writing just by reading and taking the right kind of notes.
Use just ONE of these techniques, and you will feel your writing skills improve almost immediately. Let me show you how:
How to Learn Better Writing Skills from Fiction
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
– Stephen King
Most people read for entertainment, information, or a combination of the two.
As a writer, you have access to a special third category. Let’s call it the “Meta Craft of Writing.”
I’ll explain … using a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring:
Inside Frodo’s cozy hobbit home, Gandalf pleads with Frodo, begging him to take the Ring, this world-ending object, to a place where it will be safe.
But Frodo refuses. He says he is too small, too inexperienced to deal with something so powerful. He tries to give the ring back to Gandalf.
Gandalf shouts, “Do not tempt me! … The wish to wield it would be too great, for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.’
Every time I read this line – every time – I get chills. There is such rich foreshadowing here.
As a writer, we get to take that feeling one step further. We get to ask:
- How did the author make me feel this way?
- And how can I use this effect in my own writing?
When you read, your job is to cut open each story, each line of dialogue, and inspect the emotional innards. You get to find out what makes people hungry to read more.
Start with these three steps.
Step #1: Notice What You are Reading
Some books, I will slog through over a period of weeks…
…and some that I can tear through in a day. What is the difference between these books?
Good writing is a million different things. There is no one, single element that will instantly improve your writing.
That’s why it’s so important to pause when you notice an element or technique that sticks out to you.
- Why do you love a specific character?
- Did the author structure a sentence in an interesting way?
- Is there something poetic about the prose that you adore?
- Does one writer spend too much time on description, while another moves at a rapid-fire pace?
Step #2: Write Down What You Love (or Hate)
I had a professor in college who carried fiction books around with her to class. Battered, bruised, falling to pieces – she loved those books to death.
Once, she showed me the pages – they were covered with ink. Whenever she liked something, she would underline it. She would write about it in the margins.
People have been doing this for hundreds of years. Massively successful individuals, like Bill Gates, do this too. Here’s proof:
Personally, I keep a notebook with my books or e-reader at all times. And when I’m out of the house, I take notes on my phone to write down later.
This does three things:
- It improves retention
- It forces me to slow down and notice the parts of writing that I love.
- It gives me space to grapple with and absorb what I’m learning.
Highlighting or underlining is a good start, but it’s not enough. It doesn’t encourage you to engage deeply with the text.
Move to the next step to see why:
Step #3: Ask the Right Questions
The top review for Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One:
And the very next review:
If you keep scrolling down, the reviews oscillate between raving reviews and rabid hatred.
What works for one reader may not work for another. It’s up to you, dear writer, to understand how your preferences affect your writing.
Here are the three critical questions you need to ask when you’re writing notes on anything:
- Does this work for me, or not?
- How will I use this the next time I sit down to write?
This is how many writers develop their voices. They notice the techniques they love and try to avoid the ones they don’t. They ask questions about anything that catches their attention.
Slowly, over many hours of writing, the combination of these techniques becomes a style, filled with textual nuances that people fall in love with.
Compare the ornate ponderings of Jane Austen with the light-hearted descriptions of J.K. Rowling. Compare the lightning-fast action of Dan Brown with the intricate, tangled word webs of David Foster Wallace.
When you take notes that explore and even argue with the writing, you will internalize these techniques faster. They will soon become a part of your “automatic toolset.”
This makes it easier to write extremely well, without having to think about it. What if you could naturally pour out prose on the same level as your favorite authors?
…what if you could do it better than them?
More Critical Reading Questions for Writers:
- Is there a better way to write that sentence… or scene?
- What do you think will happen next?
- What do you agree with?
- What do you disagree with?
- Why did the characters act this way?
- Why do you think the story is structured this way?
- What is the theme of the story? What is the author saying about the theme?
- What is missing from the text? Is this intentional (subtext) or is it an error?
5 Bonus Tips to Write Better via Reading
1. Don’t finish books that you hate
I used to have a 65% rule.
Now, when I realize I don’t like a book, I stop reading after only 25%.
Usually, that’s enough time to get to know the author’s style, the main promise of the book, and get your teeth into the meat of the story.
As James Joyce put it: “Life is too short to read a bad book.”
Am I too harsh? Let me know in the comments below because I’m still trying to refine my “Did Not Finish” percentage.
2. Block out (at least) 30 minutes to read
Good critical reading requires deep focus. If I’m serious about taking notes, I always block off at least 30 minutes.
Any less, and I can’t get fully immersed – I’m still too awake to the real world around me. I won’t have time to take meaningful notes if I know I’ve got to rush.
3. Try to avoid taking notes on a device, like a phone or a laptop.
Because you WILL GET DISTRACTED.
Taking some notes is better than none… unless “taking a note” leads to falling down an internet rabbit hole instead of, you know, actually reading.
4. “Dissect” Your Feelings After Reading
When you finish reading for the day, always spend at least 2 minutes dissecting how you feel.
This is both a great journal exercise and a good way to commit your learnings to memory.
5. The “Unbreakable Rule” of 3
My unbreakable rule: always walk away with at least three takeaways from every book you read. You will never waste your time reading if you do this.
I had 35 pages of notes from one book and only three sentences from another. Both books are highly cherished and firmly planted in my memory.
The lesson here: you don’t have to absorb every word to “get something” from a book. Three takeaways will always be a great place to start. Use this rule, and you will start to accrue new writing skills automatically.
Conclusion: Read the Right Way to Improve Your Writing
“Sleep is good, he said, and books are better.”
― George R. R. Martin
Read what you love and engage with it! All you have to do is ask the right questions.
And when you hate a book… put it down.
When something refuses to work for you – when you feel like you’re not going to learn anything from it – take that as a sign to seek out better things. Your time and your energy are too precious to waste.
To quote Edgar Allen Poe: “I intend to put up with nothing that I can put down.”
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2 thoughts on “How to (Actually) Get Better at Writing by Reading”
I’m a non-native speaker. The first English book I picked up to read with my poor vocabulary was Jules Verne’s “The Mysterious Island”. After reading two hundred pages like a blind I gave up. Now I’m an everyday reader and have a lot of experience; but not sure about reading it again.
I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea recently, and I found it gripping. BUT:
“You can’t please everyone all the time.”
My opinion on books that ‘don’t work’ for you? Don’t read them. There are too many other amazing novels, why get hung up on one? Unless you have a very good reason, you should feel guilt-free to move on.