The Writer's 10: Useful Habit #3: Read like a writer, or quit reading altogether

Classic Books - Erin J Bernard

Reading like a writer

Ever been to the Louvre in Paris? One of the most ubiquitous sights you’ll encounter in that rambling mausoleum of artistic endeavor is small packs of art students seated on benches and against walls, notepads open, sketching furiously away.

Studying and imitating the masters is a time-honored means of gaining insight into all kinds of visual art forms. Likewise, when you read, you should have your mental sketchpad at the ready. This means reading not only as a reader; but also as a writer. And taking lots and lots of notes.

I never read anything (not even a magazine) without a pen in my hand (you say, “obsessive”; I say, “committed to expanding my vocabulary.”). Some see the habit of scribbling all over the margins of books and magazines as practically sacrilegious, but think of it this way: as a writer, you are sitting down to study every single time you read something. And any student worth her salt had better be taking great notes.

Consider yourself the judge, jury, and executioner for everything you read. Mark out words and passages you like. Mark out words and passages you don’t care for. Take notes on what inspires and what bores you. Trace the story arc. Criticize and praise. This will help you to think more deeply about the words as you encounter them, sure. But you are also taking notes to remind yourself later, when you’re at the driver’s wheel, of what you’ve learned and would like to apply to your own work – the good, the bad, and the butt-ugly. Every single thing you read, from that Hemingway novel to the back of the shampoo bottle, has a lesson to impart, so invest in a large and generous supply of pens. They’re tax deductible, you know.

Quitting like a writer

I am totally confounded by people who piously insist on finishing every book or article they begin, even when they find it dull-minded or questionably useful or deathly boring. Our time is incredibly precious, so let’s give ourselves a bit of a break, shall we? Losing steam on that 20-page National Geographic article about the plight of Chilean salt miners? Feeling like a heel because you’ve been trying for six months to get through War and Peace and have hated every single moment of it? Wracked with guilt every single time you browse your bookcase because you’ve only gotten to the end of half of the titles on the shelf? May I suggest a better use of your time?

Stop reading, immediately and without shame, and devote your energies to digesting a piece of writing you actually care about. Reading is not an equal-opportunity endeavor!

But before you set your readerly sights on something more productive and fulfilling, stop and consider for a minute, just what the problem was. What, exactly, stank so much about what you were reading? Was it boring? Poorly written? Too slow on the uptake? Or just a bit confusing?

 Ponder this, and apply your observations to your own future work. Great writing, George Orwell once opined, should be transparent, like a windowpane. Conversely, bad writing is murky and smeared with bug-gut splatter. Know when to quit, study failures the way you study successes, then train that same critical eye inward, to your own writing. At the very least, for the love of George, give yourself permission to break up with a bad story when things go sour. Life is boring enough as it is. Reading can either be a gratifying, satisfying escape from life’s tedium, or its unwelcome second act — your call!