When I’m in the bathroom and don’t have something else to read, I read the shampoo bottle or the toilet paper wrapper. . . . there’s no way in the world I’m missing the chance to read in a few minutes of good quiet and privacy.
As a kid, we always had Reader’s Digest in the bathroom, and I savored every “Drama in Real Life” story, sucking up the words as I also absorbed the way to build tension and momentum in a story. When I was a teenager, my parents got a subscription to Smithsonian, and I began using my bathroom time to read articles about endangered frogs and new archaelogical discoveries, taking in all the ways writers incorporate research in their writing.
I read everything – from ads on the subway to the golf magazines at the dentist’s office. I read young adult novels and mysteries. I read literary novels, and I even read a business book recently. Because here’s what I know, as a writer, no reading is ever wasted. Every single piece of writing has something to teach us writers – either as something we want to emulate or something we want to eschew.
So here are my 5 tips for reading as a writer:
1. Read with a pen or pencil in hand. (Yes, even in the bathroom.) You never know when a great turn of phrase or amazing fact will jump out at you. Or if pen and pencil aren’t handy, grab your phone and type in the info. Just find some way to preserve what you’ve found so you can re-read it later.
2. Study the “how.” Many of us read for pleasure – I know I do – but even as I read light books that I choose simply to escape, I’m still studying how the writer put the story together – when does she introduce the conflict? When do we get the protagnoist’s backstory? What kind of sentence structures does he repeat?
3. Keep a quote journal. If you’re reading with a pen or a touch screen nearby, you shouldn’t have much trouble making note of the quotes you love. Maybe they will strike you because the speak a truth you hadn’t seen articulated . . . or maybe the turn of phrase will settle into you. Whatever the reason, if a quote strikes you, write it down.
4. Talk about what you read. One of the things that has helped me become a much better reader is this blog and the reviews I do on Goodreads. Because I have to a be able to articulate why I do or not like something in a piece of writing, I find that I read more closely. I find the same is true if I’m going to talk about a book. I need to be able to back up what I’m saying.
5. Read widely. Maybe you write memoir, so read as many memoirs as you can, even about topics that you think aren’t relevant, even about lives and choices that you find abhorrent or challenging or heart-breaking. If you write short stories, read short stories but also read magazine articles and blog posts – maybe your protagonist is a reporter and you’ll need to know how his writing voice sounds. Just read a lot. . . . and read something even if you don’t like it. The things we don’t enjoy have as much – or more – to teach us than the things we do.
Those shampoo bottles – they taught me how to sound out big long words and understand Latin roots . . . so when I want to try out a new word, I have a lexicon that includes “hydro” and “mono” – of water and one. Nope, nothing is wasted.
What do you learn about writing from your reading? Any advice to add?
Yesterday, Jane Friedman honored me by sharing something I wrote on her amazing blog. . . . you can read that post here, and be sure to subscribe to Jane’s blog while you’re visiting. I read it every day.