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Active Reading for Writers

When writers read we’re not only escaping into an entertaining story, we’re honing our craft. Or we can do, if we pay attention to the scaffolding alongside the finished product. How do we do this? How do we read as writers without turning an activity we’ve loved since childhood into a chore?

Somewhere between a stark star rating and a polished review is the sweet spot where our critical eye and pleasure-seeking tendencies coincide. By considering some of the same elements we’d address in our writing we can progress beyond a simple hit/miss to feed our creative process. Here are a few ideas of how we might do this.

Read anything and everything

We need to become experts on the genre we write in but that’s no excuse to neglect other styles. Authors of literary fiction can learn about pace and plot from thrillers. Science fiction writers can see how to build tension into intimate relationships from reading romance. We can gain as much from books we don’t like as from those we relish, especially if the book we scorn is commercially successful. What makes it popular with readers? Can we apply that to our writing?

Notes in the margin

Simply reading with a pencil in hand or a readiness to use the highlight function on our ereader can help us galvanise our critic. Pick out choice words and phrases, analyse why some work and others fall flat. Notice the inconsistencies and repetitions an editor has failed to rectify. Notice when the text surprises us, what we’d like to emulate and pitfalls we’d want to avoid.

Consider the three act structure

Does the author pull you in from the opening sentence or does it take time for you to connect? How do they keep your attention through the middle section? What stops you putting this book down? Is the ending credible? Predictable? Satisfying? Approaching the end of a novel I am reading, I often ask myself how I would wind it up.

Create a checklist

Draw up your personal checklist of factors that you deem essential to a satisfying story and check the books you read against this list. For example, some might be willing to sacrifice character depth in favour of intriguing world-building or poetic language. Or take one factor, perhaps one you’re currently struggling with, and study how other authors tackle it.

Write reviews

Reviewing is part of literary citizenship but it does take time. I think it’s worth investing that time at least occasionally because transforming your thoughts into a blog post or similar can help you work out what you think. But short reviews, like the 99-word story, are also beneficial in striving to capture the essence of the book.


If these suggestions seem too simplistic, why not take a literature course for a deep dive into how stories work? If they seem too burdensome, then ditch them: the bottom line is to read, read and read some more. I know some authors worry about losing their own authentic voice by reading others’ but I’ve never found that. On the contrary, I often get ideas for my own WIP when I’m sitting comfortably in my reading chair lapping up the words.

What are your tips for reading as a writer? Comment below!

About the author

Anne Goodwin is the author of three novels and a short story collection with small independent press Inspired Quill. Anne reviews every book she reads and posts about reading and writing on her blog Annecdotal.


  1. Paula Light says:

    I do think it’s important to read a variety of genres and authors, which is why I enjoy the bingo challenges!

  2. Scott Bailey says:

    Interesting points about the possible pitfalls that come with reading with a critical eye. I would never want to turn one of my favorite pastimes into a chore causing me to lose interest in it down the road. Of course some people like doing all that extra credit work, but me personally, just reading and absorbing the good stuff is good enough for me. I know if I made it more like school, I would end up hating it real fast, just like school. God, I hated school. Books were an escape for me. A place I could go and hear reassuring voices and see old familiar faces. I could get away from school and spend quality time with my favorite authors and hang on every new word they wrote. So while I can appreciate this list of tips and techniques to help improve ones’ writing, and some or all of them might be quite helpful to some people, I could never do that. I keep it all right up here (picture me pointing to my head!) because that’s the way I’ve always done it and at my age, why change now. And also, I don’t ever want to abandon the worlds I escape to. If I lost the fun of reading, I would drop it like a hot potato and I surely don’t want that to happen, it’s too important to me.

  3. Norah says:

    These are great suggestions, Anne, and I know I really should write more reviews of the books I read. Sometimes I have a blitz on Goodreads and list the ones I’ve read in the last x months and write a few words about them. I know I should do more, as you say, for my literary citizenship, but there are so many other things to read and write that’s is difficult to make the time. In fact, I thought that was something I should do today but let myself get distracted by more pressing tasks. Another day. 🙂

    • Anne Goodwin says:

      Don’t let worrying about writing reviews spoil your reading pleasure. You support other authors already in so many ways.

      • Norah says:

        I try to, Anne. I added a few books to my Goodreads shelves today – not too many reviews, just a few books mainly.

  4. Jules says:


    Thank you for an informative post. I enjoy reading different books. I even like young adult novels. Sometimes it is nice to solve a mystey that doesn’t involve murder or other violence or steamy romance.

    One thing I’ve learned too, is that if I am reading a book I am not enjoying, I don’t have to finish it. Someone else might like it. I often do trades with a few of the local free libraries in my area.

    May we continue to enjoy crafting our writing so others will seek us out 🙂 ~ Jules

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