How to Use Reading to Become a Better Writer

Photo courtesy of Claudia Castro

“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” - Victor Hugo

There are two ways to become a better writer, in general: write a lot, and read a lot.

There are no other steps.

Of course, within those two general directives, there are lots of more specific advice I can give you, and that other professional writers would offer. Let’s take a look at the second general directive: read a lot.

Why Reading Makes You a Better Writer
I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, and I would submit that most good (and especially great) writers could say the same. What we probably didn’t realize was that our trips into the fantasy worlds of these books were actually training us for our future careers. I’m glad I didn’t know — it might have taken a bit of the joy out of it.

Read can be pure joy, if you’re reading a good book. By that, I don’t mean good literature — I mean anything that captures your imagination, that compels you to read more, that tells you a good story, that creates wonderful characters, that builds new worlds.

But beyond reading for pleasure, a good writer also reads with an eye for the writing. Maybe not all the time, but at least some of the time. And many times that writer doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.

What we learn as readers, we use as writers. Maybe we don’t always do the best job at putting that knowledge to use, but that just takes practice. Over time, our writing becomes in some ways a compilation of all the things we’ve learned as readers, blended together in our own unique recipe.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” - Groucho Marx

How to Use Reading to Improve Your Writing
There’s no one way, of course. Every writer reads his own stuff, and puts that stuff to use in his own way. Below are just some tips of what’s worked for me — take what you like from it, and use what you find useful.

  1. Create the reading habit. It can’t be a matter of just reading a book and then forgetting about reading after the initial burst of enthusiasm for reading. It has to be a habit, that you create and keep for life. As someone who has learned a lot about creating habits, I know that the best way to form the habit of reading is to focus on it exclusively — don’t try to form any other habits during this time. Write down your goal (i.e. “Read for 30 minutes every day” or something like that) and post it up somewhere you can see it. Tell a lot of people about it and report to them regularly to create accountability. Log your progress daily and give yourself rewards. Do this for a month and you’ll have a decent habit in place.
  2. Have regular reading triggers. A habit has a trigger — a regularly occurring event that immediately precedes the habit. The stronger the association with the trigger, the stronger the habit. What triggers will you have for reading? For me, it’s eating, going to bed, using the bathroom, and waiting somewhere (like in a doctor’s waiting room). Every time those triggers come up, I read, without fail. Choose your triggers, and do it without fail. If you take my triggers as an example, if I read just 10-15 minutes for each trigger, that’s 6 times a day (three times eating and once for each of the others) for a total of 60-90 minutes a day. Sometimes it’s more, but that’s the minimum (I often read for much longer before bed).
  3. Carry your book with you. When you go on the road, always carry your book in the car or wherever you go. You might not need it for 9 trips, but the 10th time, you’ll be glad you brought the book. When you have a lull, whip out the book.
  4. Read great writers. By “great writers” I mean not only the greats (Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, Joyce, and Fitzgerald are some of my favorites here) but also the great storytellers. People who can write with wit, create great characters, reach into your soul, create new worlds for you to inhabit. Writers who can teach you something.
  5. Get inspired. When I read great writing, I am filled with inspiration to write. Sometimes I throw down my book and go to my computer to start hacking away at the keyboard. Other times I’ll jot down stuff in my notebook for later. Use these writers to inspire you to greatness.
  6. Analyze character, plot, theme. Break down the books you read. You can either do this as you read, or afterward, when you reflect on them while doing something else (for me it’s running and doing housework and when I’m in the shower). Why did the writer make the choices she made? How did she create the characters and convey their qualities? How did she start the book and lay out the plot? How is the theme of the book conveyed throughout the book.
  7. Pay attention to what they do with words. Beyond the big things mentioned above, the writer does little things with words, in every paragraph and sentence and phrase. A good writer pays close attention to words, the effects they create, how they mix together with other words, twists and turns of meaning. See how he does this, as it is the best instruction you can get.
  8. Rip them off. A writing teacher once told me not to mimmic other writers — but instead to rip them off. Steal blatantly. Take things that you discover in other writers, things that work, things that you love … and use them in your own writing. Don’t worry — you can always revise later or throw it out completely. For now, rip them off. It’ll help you make these techniques your own.
  9. Riff off them, experiment. Once you’ve ripped off a few dozen writers, start to riff. Do variations and experiments on stuff you’ve found. Give their techniques and styles your own twists and flair.
  10. Expand beyond your normal genres. If you normally read one or two genres, break out beyond it. If you only read sci-fi and fantasy, read more mainstream literature, read romance or thrillers, read “chick lit” (a term I hate, but oh well). There’s a lot you can learn from writers beyond your normal scope.
  11. Above all, enjoy your reading. Reading, of course, is about much more than just learning and analyzing and experimenting. It’s about joy. So don’t let your “reading to become a better writer” interfere with that. If a book bores you to tears, go ahead and put it down for something you enjoy more. If you start to lose track of the story because you’re overanalyzing, just forget about analysis and lose yourself in the book. You’ll still be learning, so fear not. If you read for pleasure, you won’t be able to help it.

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” - Woody Allen

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54 thoughts on “How to Use Reading to Become a Better Writer”

  • Great post, I always like to hear more reasons to justify why I spend so much time reading :-) (although I’m trying to spend a little more of it on writing now too). I totally agree with #3, except that I manage this by having a “car book”, a “living room book”, a “hand bag book”, so that wherever I end up with a few spare minutes, there’s a book to hand. If it’s so gripping that I can’t not finish it, I then carry it around to wherever I go.

    I’ve been thinking about #10 – reading different genres – for a while, so I guess this is the push to make me do it. I think I’ve never read a sci-fi book in my life but I probably should.

  • Brenda Grate says:

    Great post! I don’t have to try to read, it’s something I do all the time, but I liked your list of how to improve my writing. I’ve been enjoying your blog very much!

  • Kristi Holl says:

    I loved your ideas of squeezing in reading in the tidbits of time you have during the day. We’re used to doing chores and bits of work then–and I’d much rather read! So many books–so little time!

  • Cheryl says:

    I’ve been an avid reader all my life, from the early days of waiting in anticipation for the Scholastic books to arrive on my doorstep to now where I’m sure I’m having some influence on Amazon’s bottom line.

    What really struck me in your post was where you said when you were reading the “great writers” you get inspired to run to your computer and start writing.

    About 15 years ago I finished my degree in English and remember that when I was reading books by George Eliot, or Milton or Jeanette Winterson (covering lots of ground here), I felt more creative and I wrote more creatively then.

    Thank you for this post,
    Cheryl

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  • There’s a great phobia that solves any and all problems with finding time to read: Abibliophobe – having the morbid fear of running out of reading material

    Suggested Usage: “Jamie is such an abibliophobe that she NEVER leaves the house without a novel tucked into her purse – otherwise the world may end.” ;)

    I found your list of ideas really helpful -before I had the courage to call myself a writer, I would feel guilty about reading. I should have been spending that time getting something productive done, not being ‘selfish’.

    When I became a writer I realized it’s part of my job description to read as much as possible, especially novels that I enjoy – that I MUST make time for reading. As you said, good writing makes me excited to write.

    It was very freeing.

  • Nez says:

    Leo, thanks for the analysis.

    One thing that I could never get my brain around was poetry — part it of was probably the fact that in high school, I never understood how other students came up with their analyses of the poetry in question — remember, this was before the internet became popular. To this day, I still avoid poetry like the plague. Unless we’re talking rhyming limericks. :-)

    But I love prose.

    @Amanda: oh, and if you think you might want to try a sci-fi book, I would suggest Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. I just re-read it after 15-20 years. Still good, and even with today’s technology, it holds up really, really well.

    @Cheryl: I loved Scholastics books. “Reading is FUNdamental!” Even now, I look at the little catalogs my kids bring home and think, “Wow, nothing’s changed except it’s all different books — but actually, some are the same, like Henry Higgins”.

  • I love the Woody Allen quote. It really does capture the whole point of reading. It shouldn’t be looked at as an exercise but a process of discovery. I can’t begin to describe how much I love reading! The more, the better!

  • Eamon Mack says:

    I’m really enjoying the new blog. I particularly love the Groucho Marx and Woody Allen quotations. Classic!

  • Jo'el says:

    Thanks again for the great post! Reading is magic, writing is magic. And it’s good to hear other people share that opinion :)

  • CC says:

    Wonderful post and tips. Like any craft, to become good it takes pratice and study. Thanks for a great post!

  • Chris says:

    I’m always interested to hear who other readers think is a good writer. Maybe others could over up some suggestions as to who they think is a great storyteller. Possibly list off some of your all time favorite books? Leo?

  • Jennifer says:

    I’ve been a reader since I was a young kid. In fact, my mom loves to tell everyone the story of how, when I was about four years old, I climbed onto her lap with one of my books and asked her to teach me how to read. I haven’t put books down since.

    This was a very interesting post, it really got me thinking. I know for a fact that I learned how to write mostly from reading great writers. When I was in seventh grade, I read “Say Cheese and Die” by R.L. Stein, and then I sat down and wrote a horror story of my own. A year later, I read “Don’t Die, My Love” by Lurlene McDaniel and then sat down and wrote a novel based loosely off ideas I got from her book. Those are 2 books that changed my life.

    If anyone is interested in learning more about how writers learn to write by reading, check out Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like A Writer.” I’m using that in my fiction class right now, and it really gets into the details of reading to learn how to write.

  • Ana says:

    “I’m always interested to hear who other readers think is a good writer. Maybe others could over up some suggestions as to who they think is a great storyteller. Possibly list off some of your all time favorite books? Leo?”

    I have a crazy theory about that. In my experience a great reading is one in witch all the pieces fix together perfectly, so as to live no room for “extras”, e.g. I would not add or subtract from Oedipus.

    By contrast most “light” literature kind of gives wings to your imagination, or at least it does in my case: I add new features to the world created by the author, restructure some parts, maybe change some character or situations in my head. Even when I like the narrator and enjoy reading the piece (lets say Bertie Wooster), I just don’t respect that guy the same way I respect Kafka’s Prometheus or Dostoyevsky’s inquisitor.

    There is a perfection in a good piece of writing that makes it a whole witch can’t be broken into parts without loosing the add up value of the complete entity.

  • Shannon says:

    Here is a note to all the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, babysitters, older siblings and anyone in between: read to the kids who are around you on a regular basis! I was read to by all of these individuals while I was growing up and I truly believe it had the greatest impact in my love of literature and writing. I can still remember the first book I finished on my own, Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham.”

    Make an impact in a child’s life and read to them. I know it’s redundant and I’m sure you hear that all the time, but it really is important.

    Happy reading to all you literature enthusiasts.

  • Justin says:

    A friend who knows I’m always with my head in a book asked what she could do to get her kids to read more. I asked her how often they saw her reading. She said she didn’t have time. I said, “well, then your kids won’t make time for it either.”

    It is so important to be seen reading, especially by our kids, so as to inspire others to be more alive in a way only engaging the imagination can do.

  • Zoe Winters says:

    I’ve definitely gotten in the reading habit. Right now I’m doing something called the 50 book challenge to read 50 novels in a year. I’m chugging along pretty good now, I’m on book 8. If I keep this pace I’ll definitely go farther than 50 novels and if so I’m going to see how many I can read.

    I read whenever I can get some time and have found it definitely improving my writing because I start seeing the stuff I’m missing that’s hard for someone to just “tell you” is wrong with it. But it’s blatantly obvious when you read a lot. I used to not read very much and I can see a big difference in my writing.

  • I love reading. But these days I don’t read as much as I used to. That’s because I’m so passionate about writing.

    At night I settle down in bed with a book.. and then an inspiration for a new article or new blogpost hits my mind. I immediately grab my laptop or notebook and start writing feverishly- while the book languishes on the floor.

    However, I still read a lot – for pleasure, and to inspire my writing. Like Leo, my reading tends to happen in odd moments during the day. I’m never without a book in my bag, beside my chair, or in the bathroom.

    These stolen moments of reading are especially sweet!

  • CatherineL says:

    Great post Leo. I used to think that all writers read profusely. It certainly makes a lot of sense.

    I like your idea of ripping off the work of others – so long as you remember to change it afterwards!

    One thing I’ve tried lately is to write down pages from my favourite novels. I figured that it works for copywriting, so it might work for other work too.

  • linlee65 says:

    Great ideas, Leo. I’ve been using most of them all my life, and it is true that diversifying your reading adds dimension to my writing. Another way to help others learn the pleasures of reading is to give them books about their favorite (or “at-the-moment” favorite) subjects. With each gift-giving occasion, no matter what else I give them, I always include a book. I have done this for so long that friends and family have started to provide me with title/subject suggestions of their own. My grandkids have nicknamed me The Book Grandma!

  • Spectacular advice, Leo! I particularly like the point about ripping them off. And you’ve even given us explicit permission to do anything with your work. You live by your words!

    Andrew

  • JanW says:

    I’ve heard of hand copying other writer’s work, but not ripping them off. There is a current writer who is in hot water over doing that right now. Beware plagiarism. Not cool.

  • crow says:

    I had this quote as the heading of my dissertation journal (while I worked on it). I’m not sure it’s even accurately attributed to Stendhal (I might have gotten it from Bolton’s excellent collection of articles on writing, but your blog entries have reminded me of it:

    “If when I was young I had been willing to talk about wanting to be a writer, some sensible person might have said to me: ‘Write for 2 hours every day, genius or not.’ That would have saved 10 years of my life, stupidly wasted in wanting to become a genius.” Stendhal

    Thanks for sharing so much. I am fascinated to know how someone with 6 children can live so seemingly serenely and productively. I also like to wake early–perhaps that is the secret?

    Best,
    crow

  • Dariyn says:

    I liked the advise too…..here is the thing, I simply can’t get interested in contemporary fiction…I have tried. I always go back to Tolstoy, or Joyce, Emerson….I enjoy Annie Dillard…maybe you can suggest some authors I haven’t tried….it takes an enormous amount of trial and error to find authors that speak to me……I am an art teacher…like to write as a form of expression…..thanks

  • Mazzycat says:

    “There are two ways to become a better writer, in general: write a lot, and read a lot.”

    I have always been a reader. My problem is – after reading really great book (and I read many great books) I often get disillusioned. ‘I could never write anything as good as that,’ I think. ‘So what’s the point?’

    I reached an all-time low after reading ‘The Life of Pi’ last year. I grew desperate, even considered giving up reading fiction entirely. Thankfully I could never quite bring myself to it.

    I never really thought that I could use my reading as inspiration – I always felt too afraid of being a pale shadow. Thank you Leo for helping me reframe my situation – and fight the fear.

  • amypalko says:

    I teach English Lit at university and I’ve found that your principle also works really well once reversed: writers make better readers. We’ve integrated a creative writing component into our introductory course, and I always see a vast improvement in my students’ reading and comprehension of a text after they have experimented with writing creatively. I think the two, writing and reading, go hand in hand; if you want to be good at one then you need to practice the other simultaneously.

  • Adam Miller says:

    Hi Leo, I loved the article, and won’t reiterate a lot of the previous comments (though I do agree :)), but wanted to mention that I did like the fact that you mention that a great book is anything that captures the imagination, not necessarily the “classics.”

    Nothing against the classics, but I think that if you’re reading, enjoying it, and becoming involved in the story, that’s a great book. When that book was written really has no bearing on the issue.

  • Erika says:

    If you’re interested in learning more about how reading helps you become a better writer, check out Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose.

  • I think another aspect of this leans toward marketing. At least subconsciously, I try to figure out when a book has done very well in a particular genre, how it was accomplished. I also try to mark trends across different writers in the same genre, finding commonalities that help you map out a successful project of your own.

    Not to mention that if you have not read widely in your chosen genre, what appears to you to be a ground-breaking, amazing idea may have been done to death.

    I remember watching a Dean Koontz movie where there were twins, but you didn’t find out until the end that it was twins. I thought it was pretty cool…my wife told me it’s one of the oldest plot twists in soap operas and romances, and that it was not innovative at all.

    Another reason to take your advice about reading outside your own genre as well as inside…

    DNW

  • Tony says:

    I’ve been a reader of sci-fi, fantasy and contemporary fantasy. I’ve now decided to read more of the classic and contemporary literature to both expand my breadth of reading experience, but also to help add more depth to my own writing. I’ve written a lot but find that my stories feel a bit flat. I’m hoping to remedy this with some good reading. Three books that help psych me up to read is Harold Bloom’s How to read and Why, Francine Prose’s Reading like a writer, and Thomas Foster’s How to read like a literature professor. All are great books.

    One last note. If you want a documentary that might get you really interested in reading try Mark Moskowitz’s The Stone Reader. It’s a great documentary on the search for a missing one-time published author. Along the way Moskowitz talks with literature critics and professors and talks on their love of great books.

  • For the next 40 days or so, I’m cutting myself off from the news world and entering a world of silence (as much as possible). I hope I’ll spend more time reading and writing. What would you like to do or give up for Lent? Read my thoughts at peoplepowergranny.blogspot.com. You can also vote in my poll.

  • Julie says:

    Hi Leo,

    Thanks so much for this blog. I’ve been trolling Zen to Done for a few months, and only just discovered this one when you linked to it.

    I have a question for you, if you don’t mind: I’ve been quietly writing a Bible-related blog (generally secular, rather than religious) called Daily Breadcrumbs. I’ve written about 90,000 words so far (approximately), and I’m trying to figure out how to get it out to a readership of more than my estimated 7-15. I’d like to perhaps get it published as a book, since it’s not really web-friendly material. (I do almost nothing that Mary writes in your next entry.)

    Do you have any suggestions for how to get the word out? Or where to go to start looking for a publisher?

    Many thanks!

  • Leo Babauta says:

    @Julie: Excellent question. I will try to address that in an upcoming post. Thanks for the idea!

  • Todd says:

    Read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. An excellent book on the intimate relationship between reading and writing and how writers should read books.

  • Jessie says:

    Thank you for all these.
    I would like to follow your advise to read in a different way.
    I’ll be improving myself.

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  • jimkastkeat says:

    Beautiful! These words are inspiring and invigorating. Thanks for the way you connect writing and reading!

  • Cris says:

    Great article, Leo. I am currently on maternity leave and reading a lot to get my head into a grown-up place. Almost as a direct extension of that, I have started writing. Reading great books inspired me to try my hand.

    I particularly like your tenth point about reading widely. Through online reading communities, I have been challenged to read books that I might never have picked up. I have even started blogging on resources to expand your reading. I hadn’t considered the advantages for writers prior to reading this post.

  • Hari says:

    In my view, the key to become a good reader is to be able to perceive things through the eyes of the author. An avid reader has a strong talent for it, it comes naturally to him. So when he takes to writing, he carries it forward there as well. No matter whether his audience is imaginary, the practice of writing does sharpen the skill.

  • Raquel says:

    Great post it made feel more comfortable of calling myself a writer and it also reassured me that I need to keep reading a habit in order to become a better writer. Read read read and read some more.

  • Michelle Blackston says:

    Thank you! This is so refreshing. As a communications professional who edits researchers’s writing, I wish they would read more to improve their writing. Often we get into a rut of thinking we know what we mean and so should everyone else! Reading helps clarify writing. And definitely steal and pillage others writing style and ideas. Again, thanks, for this thoughtful and spot-on post!

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