Stephen King told us, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

True enough, but simply reading is just the first step. Close reading is an essential skill for writers where we move beyond reading for story and evaluate the story as we read it. 

But how do you do that? Let’s look at five ways you can read with the eyes of a writer.

1. Slow Down

I don’t know about you, but the stack of unread books on my shelves is teetering, and getting more dangerous every day. (Let’s not talk about my TBR list!) Reading faster seems like one way to whittle the growing pile. But it’s difficult to acknowledge the nuances of craft and technique when the goal is just to Slow down. Sit with the words on the page and give them a chance to work their magic.

2. Pay Attention

When you’re reading, you’re engaged and (hopefully) enjoying the story. That’s reading like a reader. As writers, we need to up our game. We have to notice what elements of the story we’re enjoying or not enjoying. This is a simple step, but it is a critical one if we are to move beyond simply reading.

3. Get the Big Picture

  • I like to stop at least once per chapter and check in with my understanding of how the story is unfolding. I ask myself some combination of the following questions:
    • What happened in this chapter? What actions are the characters doing to move the story forward?   
    • Are the main characters compelling? What do you find interesting about them?
    • Are you enjoying the story? Do you want to keep reading? Or are you forcing yourself to return to the book?
    • Does the world the characters inhabit reflect their situation?

4. Ask Why

This is the single biggest thing you can do to bring the techniques of what you’re reading into your own writing. When you read a paragraph or a scene that resonates with you, stop. Dig a bit deeper by asking yourself why. Why do you find this passage so compelling? Why do you think the author made this choice? Why does this scene feel so suspenseful? Why do you like (or not like) this character? Don’t let yourself off the hook with a generic answer. Keep asking why until you get to the specific technique the author used.

5. Put Yourself in the Author’s Shoes

I love this exercise! Imagine your name is on the jacket. Ask yourself this simple two-part question: If I had written this book, what would I do same, and what would I do differently?

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