How to Actually Read Like a Writer

by | Mar 4, 2021

Written By: Juliette Holder

In my years of both seeking out and handing out advice on how to be a better writer, I’ve noticed one of the most common pieces of advice is the one we spend the least amount of time really explaining. The advice is this: to be a better writer, you have to read more. 

It’s good advice, excellent even, but only if you know what it means. Sure, the mere exposure to more and better types of writing may eventually seep into your own writerly practices, but there’s actually a far more efficient and active way to use reading to your advantage as a writer. 

Typically, when we set out to read like writers, we end up simply as admirers. We come across a sentence or piece of writing that seems to light up on the page. Perhaps we read it over a few times, taking it in. 

But that’s still reading like a reader. The ways we talk about writing implies that there are no real rules, no strategies, no mechanics at play. We talk as if good writing “flows” from a mysterious, mystical source. So when we see a passage we respect, all we can really do is stand in awe, and perhaps harbor a bit of jealousy at that author’s luck.

That’s why when we try to explain why we like a text, we’re left with statements like “it just flows,” “it’s interesting,” or “it engages the readers.” Those are still just compliments. 

In fact, when someone talks about a piece of writing they think is especially compelling, one of the most common words they use is “magical.” Good writing is a bit like magic. But just like Merlin or Elsa or Harry Potter, you can study and develop the skills of magic. 

Certainly, admiring a text is the first step, but if your goal is to learn from it how to compose better sentences yourself, you can’t stop there. 

To really read like a writer, you need to, at least for a moment, pretend that you’re the one who wrote that text in the first place. Choose a line that you like and write or type it out yourself (don’t copy and paste it). This will help you really consider the choices that go into selecting each specific word arranged in that particular order. 

Reviewing the text in front of you, consider its structure, its use of language, the ways it plays with expectations, and how it connects to the larger context. What possible alternate versions could exist and would those be better or worse and why? 

To practice, let’s look at one of the most famous lines of literature in history: the oft-quoted opening to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities–“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Take a few minutes to think about this quote. You probably noticed that it relies pretty heavily on contrast. It claims two opposing ideas are true. On the surface, that reads as illogical; it upsets the structures that we claim to live by as rational people. But the idea that you can live through times and experiences that involve contradictions–that you might be both happy and sad or hopeful and discouraged at the same time–of course feel very true. This line manages to surprise us by subverting expectations and to resonate deeply with our lived experiences, all at the same time. 

You may also have made note of the structure. Dickens literally repeats the same sentence twice, changing only one word. In effect, we as readers feel like we started the book twice–we began one tale about the best of times, and then we start over to hear a story about the worst of times. The repetition reflects the message of this short line–that we often live complex, contradictory times; we find ourselves in the middle of competing narratives, many stories all at once. 

At this point, if I notice all of these things, but walk away saying “wow, that Charles Dickens guy knew a thing or two about writing,” I’m still reading like a reader, caught in an author’s spell. 

To really learn to craft writing like this myself, I need to distill what I noticed down to some actionable steps I can practice using in my own writing. Based on Dickens’s passage, I might make a note reminding me to write about what actually feels true, not how the story is “supposed” to go. I might even practice by first writing down the expected version of a story, the most typical take on an argument, or the most familiar use of a type of evidence. But then I might try to do something unexpected. I’d almost certainly want to try my hand at employing repetition with purpose, specifically identifying areas where I can use it to make my sentence structure reflect the meaning of my sentence–perhaps when making the argument that a certain idea is tiring or old or worn out. Or maybe to emphasize familiarity. Martin Luther King Jr. masterfully used this technique in many of his writings and speeches so that his structure reflected his words–that things had gone on in the same way for far too long. 

If you start approaching texts in this way, before long, you’ll have a nice set of tricks you can employ in your own writing. Of course, with that comes learning when to use each move. Different genres call for different approaches. What works in a creative narrative might not work in an argumentative essay. This makes sense. Elsa would likely find little use for the spells taught in the halls of Hogwarts, afterall. 

Writing is a skill, not a talent. And that fact does nothing to belittle the magic of well-written texts. In fact, it’s an invitation to create some magic yourself.